Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Creating an Innovative Environment

How do you create an environment where innovation flourishes?

There are lots of people getting paid lots of money to answer that question. Companies are creating VPs of innovation and BusinessWeek thought it was a hot enough topic to devote a magazine to the subject.

Personally, it’s something I’ve thought a lot about. Working at an idea factory as I do, it’s hard to analyze where innovative thinking comes from.

After digging through what I’ve read, what I’ve experienced and the rest of the random thoughts in my head, I’ve more of less landed on two core criteria for creating an innovative environment.

  1. Create a place where people want to bring great ideas.
  2. Teach people how to think better.

Now I think the first one is pretty obvious. One goal of an organization focused on innovation should be to inspire their employees to bring their innovative ideas to the office rather than leaving them at home. Lots of successful companies and products have come from a few employees within another organization. So why did they decide to take their idea with them instead of building it inside? How do you create a culture where people want to bring you their ideas.

One option is Google’s 20 percent time, where you give you engineers the flexibility to follow their passions for 1/5 of their week. Clearly this incentive has paid off, leading to Google News, Google Suggest and AdSense for Content to name a few.

There are certainly other incentives companies can dream up, but I’m going to leave number one on the table and jump to the second core criteria for creating an innovative environment.

Teach people how to think better.

This one is big and I think most often overlooked. It’s not about corporate training it’s about learning. As John Hagel put it, “When companies do focus on developing talent, they often emphasize formal training programs. While these programs certainly have a role in talent development, they pale in comparison to the rapid learning that occurs when employees are put in situations that challenge them to get better faster on a daily basis.” Bottom line is that there is a big difference between teaching people how to do and teaching people how to think.

You can help people think better. You can help them understand that the world is full of inspiration and learning can be fun. You can teach them to open their minds to unexpected places and follow whatever path it leads them down. You can teach them how to interpret things. That way instead of relying on a limited few in some R&D lab, you can open up the process. In turn you will create more value for both the company and the employees.

I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time, but was waiting for the right piece of motivation. Funnily enough, today it came in a New York Magazine article about the possibility of Mike Bloomberg running for President. Towards the end of the article when talking about what Bloomberg might do next, his unique take on philanthropy comes up:

But Bloomberg tells me he has another concept brewing. “There’s the area of, how do you encourage more democracy,� he says. “Whether it’s getting good people to go into public service, or finding ways for the public to measure the people they elect and whether they deliver what they promise.�

You’re talking about merging your politics to your philanthropy, I say.

“Yes, but you’ve got to distinguish between what I’m talking about and what George Soros is trying to do. Soros uses his money to push his views. I’d be more inclined to use my money to give people the ability to make up their own minds and express themselves.�

That sealed it for me. The common approach is to use your money or power to get people to make the decisions you want. What Bloomberg is trying to do is use those same things to get people to make the decisions they want.

That, to me, is how innovation happens. It’s when people stop making the decisions they think their boss wants and start thinking for themselves: Bringing their own ideas to the table.

December 10, 2006

Comments

  • Josh says:

    Yeah, empowering people is essential. Good management is a fine balance between leaving your people alone to do their thing and being present enough that they respect you and know they can count on you.

    I think a key is worrying more that an assignment gets done well and on time than worrying about how it gets done. Sounds obvious, but the Office Space-like places that are the bane of creative thinking are the ones where you can get in trouble for finishing something faster, cheaper, and better because you didn’t follow the standard operating procedures.

  • mikej says:

    nice post Noah

    Im in the midst of trying to create a bit of a cultural change in the agency I work for. We are trying to make it casual and relaxed and just get people to do and talk about things they love. Then postit on a work blog. Music, fashion sport etc. Grouping together as a whole all our knowledge and understanding of things we love we hope will enable people to open their minds to the real world. Not what we do at work everyday

    If you have any other articles or views on this. It would be great

    Thanks

  • Charles says:

    Creating a casual working environment is paramount (from my experience). To “think better,” you need to be able to critically look at your current thought process, and figure out what you can improve. In a casual environment, this sort of constructive criticism can happen all the time, and without problems.

    I’ve seen situations where nobody wants to look bad, or admit defeat. Because the situation isn’t casual, communication is stunted and learning gets munsoned.

  • Noah Brier says:

    Josh, I totally agree. Did you read this article about Best Buy’s new flex time?

    Mikej, I’m all about people sharing ideas and getting to know each other. I think blogging can be a great way to do that if people want to contribute. The tough part is getting them past the initial hump and making them feel like it’s a fun activity rather than another job. As for some additional resources, check out my entries about innovation and management. And probably even more helpful will be my Sidenotes tagged with innovation and management.

    Charles, I think you’re right, casual is part of it. How can you be asked to learn if you’re constantly in survival mode? As a sidenote, I expect this is part of the issue in very poor neighborhoods: How can a child be asked to pay attention in school if they’re unsure where their next meal will come from. Sounds like some Maslow type stuff to me.

  • Roger von Oech says:

    Great post, Noah.

    If you were to ask me what one thing I’d recommend people do to help them think more effectively, I would say:

    “Look for the second right answer.”

    When most people have a problem, they usually stop with the first right answer they find. That’s okay for some problems, but if you want to be innovative, you need to go beyond it and look for the second right answer, and the third one, and the fifth one. The first answer is usually what’s worked before but probably won’t be the best way to deal with upcoming challenges. The second (and beyond) right answers are usually more creative.

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