That creativity is one of the greatest assets of prosperous teams is something on which many can agree. And the case for creating a culture of innovation has wider implications for a company’s success, as plenty of research shows. But, how to accomplish this in practical terms? Atmosphere, the virtual event run by Google for Work last week, offered thousands of viewers a flavour of how to think creatively and achieve business transformation.
Accomplish business innovation
Taking a step back and looking at all the businesses that he has been exposed to over the past decade, he observes two approaches to innovation: ‘corporate’ and ‘entrepreneurial’ innovation. The former is usually driven by market research. “You get a lot of data analysts spending a lot of time looking at a space in the market place” and build a product to serve a particular user group. In his experience this approach only leads to small incremental innovation. “It never leads to disruptive change.”
In contrast, entrepreneurial innovation rarely uses market research. “[Entrepreneurs] come up with an idea. They have an instinct that over time that idea will sync in the marketplace and become a huge disruptive idea.” This is what happened at Airbnb. Mildenhall describes the founders’ original efforts to launch the start-up into the world by going into every listing in New York with cameras to take pictures. “They had the instinct that great photographs of homes would work well on the digital platform. No market research, no data, could have ever suggested that this could be the right approach.”
Still today, Airbnb maintains that entrepreneurial spirit across the whole organisation. But how can a leader strengthen that type of culture? Personally, Mildenhall has three mantras that he tries to bring with him each day.
The first is the power of belief. “If you believe it, then it can become a reality. I am a big champion in getting my team to dream openly and share those dreams.”
Secondly, creativity. Mildnhall thinks that everybody has a responsibility to be creative. “In whatever job you do, whether it is HR, Finance, Administration or Marketing, bringing your full creative self to work can really create a step change in progress.”
Finally, there is humanity, which is about bringing “empathy and compassion to the workplace.”
Mildenhall has also something to say about taking risk. “Be prepared to celebrate both failure and success.”
A nice example of how Airbnb puts this into practice is ‘Our Fabulous Failures’, a monthly celebration where employees talk about the ideas that didn’t succeed the way they planned. The point of the whole exercise is to “actually learn from those failures and scale the learning around the organisation.”
In his final analysis, the more a company celebrates failures, the more it becomes comfortable with taking risks. “And, the more a company takes risks, the more successful the results.”
Interesting insights around cultivating innovation within teams comes also from Laszlo Bock. The Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google and author of the new book ‘Work Rules!” reminds us that: “we spend more time working than we do anything else in life.” Yet, for many people work is just a means to an end. “It is not much fun. It is not inspiring. It is not what it should and could be.”
When it comes to innovation, there are different models and mechanisms. At Google, Bock tried all of them “because there is no single answer. You have to create opportunities for people to be creative, and the answer is that it depends on what kind of product you have; what kind of environment you have; and what kind of people you have.”
Yet, by stepping away from that observation, Bock claims that the major drivers of innovation are “making the work mean something and giving people freedom.”
Those two crucial factors are applicable to all types of work. “You can find meaning – the connection to something bigger than yourselves – in any job. If you can drive that connection, people are more productive. And, if you give them the freedom to do that, they will be happier as well.”
Bock’s claim is not just opinion, but is backed up by solid research. For example, he mentions a study conducted by MIT, which looked at two T-shirt factories in Mexico. The first factory was very traditionally managed, with managers telling people what to do and how to perform their jobs. In contrast, the employees of the second factory were asked to figure out their goals and how to achieve them. The results? On average, the latter produced 140 T-shirts daily as opposed to the 80 pieces of garment made in the tightly controlled manufactory site. The same big impact was seen in higher levels of staff happiness.
It is also refreshing to hear Bock talking about Millennials. He does not think that this generation, which is often described as if it were a ‘different species’ entirely, is that different after all. “If you talk with them, what do they ask for? They want freedom. They want control over their destiny. They want to do meaningful work. They want well-being and to be able to chart their course.”
This may seem contrary to received wisdom, but, Bock who is now over 40, claims that when he was 20 he wanted exactly the same things. And, he goes even further. “My dad, when he was 20, he wanted the same things too.”
The only big difference today is that Millennials are more connected and vocal. Bock shares an interesting perspective: “I do not think that we should manage them differently. I think that we should manage just everybody the way that Millennials are asking to be managed.”
Bock offers a final piece of advice around data. “A lot of decisions we make are based on our gut – how we conduct interviews, the way we hire, the way we promote.” But, he believes that there is a much better way of making decisions, which is objective, fact-based and reliant on data.
Now, talking about freedom and rules on the same line of thought may sound contradictory. But, in reality Bock stresses the fundamental concepts that work should be about contributing to society, focusing on a larger outcome, and achieving both our personal and organisational goals in the most productive and meaningful way.
Is there a formula for creativity?
First, Brown talks about mindsets, “ways of addressing the world.” Being curious and challenging assumptions are good starting points. “Why things are happening that way? Why does the world work the way it does? Unless we are curious, it is very hard to come up with new ideas.”
He has a point. Brown claims that re-framing a problem by asking different questions is often the way in which the most creative ideas are born. “It is an art form but the more you practise the better it gets.”
Where should we begin? “Think of the creative process of starting with the question, not the answer. We think of creativity as being all about ‘I have an idea!’ But in reality, it is all about “I have a really interesting question!’
“So, go home, go back to work and start wondering about the interesting questions. I ensure you that you will get to interesting ideas.”
Easier said than done. And, certainly the creative process does not stop there. We need to do something as a response to those questions. We need to explore the idea. “You can think of it as an experiment or a prototype. The question is the instigator. Then, the things that you are going to try is when you will learn whether it was a good idea or not.”
In fact, most good ideas can take a large number of iterations before getting to the end. This case touches on the particularly thorny issue of creating confidence: “our natural ability to have new ideas and then, the courage to act on them, actually doing something. Because, this is what creativity ultimately is all about.”
Another important lesson to take from Brown is around ‘failure’: “It is not really failing. It is about learning by doing things over and over again. Every experiment is a learning process, and part of that learning is to knowing what doesn’t work and what does.”
Creativity does not confine to any specific department
“It does not matter in which piece of the organisation you are working – it could be Marketing; it could be HR; it could be anywhere. It is about having the attitude that there can be better ways of doing things.” Indeed, taking the world as it comes it is not very creative.
Brown mentions the role played by new technologies, which “help us to make better connections, find all sorts of things, bring them together and curate creatively.” Certainly, the rise of the smartphone is driving this possibility forward. “We all carry those little devices.” In fact, at IDEO employees take pictures of everything, all the time.
Brown says that those images are the beginning of the creative process inspired inside the company. “People come back from trips with lots of pictures of how people work and live their lives. Then, we start asking the question, ‘Could that be different?'”
Ultimately, for Brown, nurturing creativity is a no-brainer. “You have to. We live in a world today where change is everywhere. Nothing stays the same for long. We really need to bring creativity to everything we do.” In his view the gain is twofold. First, it is much more enjoyable and rewarding to try to figure out how things could be different from how they are. On the other hand, “it is also what we need as individuals and organisations if we want to stay competitive.”
Innovation start with us
For any organisation, no doubt, there are invaluable benefits in fostering a culture of innovation. For those ready to embark on the creative journey, the tips shared by Brown, Bock and Mildenhall seem like a good place to start.
Indeed, not everyone is and will become the next IDEO, Google or Airbnb. And, that is OK. That is not even the point.
It is about recognising that forward-thinking businesses and teams can and should be nurtured everywhere. We often do not recognise ourselves as part of the process. But, as those three luminaries show, it starts with us and our willingness to think creatively and innovate boldly.