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