A South Carolina fabric and chemical manufacturer uses a machine that runs five times faster than anticipated and completes tasks that were totally unexpected when the company authorized the purchase order. That's because employees have made more than 200 small improvements to that machine, contributing to the organization's competitive advantage in a challenging industry.
At a truck driver's suggestion, a Colorado furniture chain now provides the same design and layout training to sales people and delivery personnel alike. Instead of just delivering a customer's new furniture, delivery personnel take the time to arrange it attractively in the home. Since implementing this initiative, fewer customers have complained that their purchases don't look as good as they did in the store and the number of returns has dropped, boosting profitability and bonuses.
And when a group of PR executives in Missouri, waiting in the office for their lunchtime pizza, was puzzling over a creative pitch for a client's fish product, a co-worker—not on any account team—gave them food for thought. With three small children and a full-time job, she knew all about the value of quick meals and pointed out that fish could be prepared faster than having pizza delivered. The subsequent PR campaign, developed from her idea, achieved huge media coverage and won the company an award for its creativity.
When you consider how many misunderstandings there are around creativity, it's not surprising that so few organizations get it right. In fact, examples of creativity at work often contrast with an all-too-common experience, says Dean Schroeder, professor and mba director at Valpraiso University and an international expert on the link between creativity and culture.
"A number of years ago one of the major airlines spent tons of money training people to be creative and all it did was create frustration," Schroeder explains. "This was an organization dogged by rules and regulations which had sent people off to 'think outside the box' only to put them back in their little cubicles after the course had ended. Some years later, the vice president of human resources confessed to me that it was one of the biggest mistakes they had made." What the airline had not realized was that while you can increase the level of creativity by training, the more important element is making sure that the corporate environment allows people to exercise what they've learned.
But many leaders don't know how to foster corporate creativity. Senior management fears that allowing employees to "goof off" is the first step toward corporate anarchy. Line managers can't see how this "touchy-feely" stuff does anything to help achieve tangible business results. And employees? They just wish management would listen to the suggestions they already make and stop punishing people for trying something new.
The most innovative organizations translate ideas into relevant business solutions and foster creativity by making it part of their strategic focus. On average, people have five new ideas a day, more than most companies can feasibly evaluate or implement , according to Alan Robinson, co-author of Corporate Creativity: How Innovation and Improvement Actually Happen (Berrett-Koehler, 1997). "But then, only 5 percent of what we call 'creativity' is the idea itself," he says. "The rest of it is leading people to make that idea work."
That's certainly the case at Rich Products Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y., where the innovative culture has helped produce the world's first frozen bakery product, the world's first frozen dough "bake off" technology and the world's first sheeted pizza dough, among others. The company has profited greatly as pioneers using soy beans to produce non-dairy products. And that creativity is translated into bottom-line benefits, with annual sales increasing from $28,000 in 1945 to more than $1.4 billion today.
Rich's 6,000 associates know that their innovative ideas and solutions to problems are not just welcomed, but also expected, according to Mary Beth Debus, manager for training and education.
"Mindy Rich, our executive vice president of innovation, has always said that we use creativity to lead us to innovation and the practical definition of that is making money," Debus says. "Creativity in our organization is strategic. Each department has its own scorecard tied to performance appraisals and bonuses and one of the measures is meeting a target for innovation."
Last year, for example, each business unit was held accountable for implementing four ideas outside its remit, and the company as a whole exceeded that measurement by 600 percent, proving Robinson's point that a shortage of ideas is not the problem. Managers, he says, need to understand that they are not going to generate most of the ideas that make a difference to their organization.
"The employees on the front line tend to be the most creative, not because of who they are but because of where they are—dealing with customers, suppliers and generally getting their hands dirty," he says. "What management is then called upon to do is channel that creativity in a way that contributes meaningfully to the bottom line."
Part of creating the right culture and fostering creativity involves encouraging top leaders to put goals in place around innovation. As at Rich Products, the business managers at financial holding company, bb&t Corp., have specific objectives to meet each year, which require them to capitalize on their teams' innate ingenuity.
That creativity is reinforced "constantly," says Tim Davis, executive vice president of the Human Systems Division at the company's headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C. "We talk about it from the office of the ceo right through the organization." bb&t provides training that links creative initiatives to the business plan and sets incentives around that in order to reward the appropriate behaviors. "One of the company's corporate values is 'independent thinking,' and each functional area is encouraged to approach the concept of creativity and innovation in its own way," he says. "What senior management provides is an open infrastructure where the message is that any idea is a good idea."
One important refinement, Davis says, is to ensure creativity is not seen as a vague skill but something rooted in everyday reality. "Our training personnel offers a series of 12 creativity tools which are covered in a program through bb&t's corporate university. We teach this class to intact teams that learn these concepts by applying them to a problem they're currently experiencing," says Davis. "Teaching theory is one thing, but we feel that having whole teams bringing real-life problems to the table adds greater value."
Last spring the company announced a new initiative called the Chairman's Innovation Award when a strong distinction was drawn between the bb&t approach and traditional suggestions programs.
"We wanted employees to concentrate on creativity and innovation in their own functional areas, to improve the processes, services and products over which they have direct control," says Davis. "Each business group manager has to submit his or her top three innovations for the calendar year—not just a concept but something concrete, tested and which has been shown to produce additional revenue, reduce costs, enhance client service or reduce risk."
One such example came from Davis' department. The team that managed the executive compensation and incentive plans would typically go out on the road for two months of the year conducting face-to-face sessions at each of the branches. Last year, as its contribution to innovation, Davis' group produced a high-quality, informational e-learning package that was then sent by e-mail. Not only did this mean that key members of the Human Systems Division did not have to be pulled out of their regular jobs, but the company saved several hundred thousand dollars in travel and material costs as well. This year, all Davis' team had to do was pull up that custom-built package, make the necessary updates, and send it out the same way.
But what if senior management doesn't share the commitment to creativity and innovation that's demonstrated at Rich Products and bb&t? How can training professionals take responsibility for developing a creatively focused culture? Pam Walsh, executive vice president of talent development at Franklin Covey's headquarters in Salt Lake City, believes anything is possible—if you know where to go for support.
"If you aren't attaching creativity to business results then management is not going to respect what you do or see it as valuable," Walsh says. "Many training professionals may consider this to be way out of their comfort zone but, believe me, it can be a wonderful, creative challenge to try and figure out how to connect the dots between the training department and the line managers so they support your efforts rather than undermine them."
Prior to joining Franklin Covey, Walsh worked as a training director for a Fortune 500 company. There, she learned to keep herself "very results focused." "My testing ground involved working with one of the toughest line VPs in the company who didn't want some corporate trainer coming in and disrupting the flow of business," Walsh says. "So I listened to this man's concerns, making it my goal to address them. When you design training with profit and loss in mind you cause things to change. That's how you influence corporate culture."
This is very much the experience of Trish McGuire and Kelly Knowles, vice president of human resources and training manager, respectively, for Shred-It, a Toronto-based mobile shredding and recycling company. McGuire and Knowles work together to help line managers not only see why front-line ideas are so important for the business, but how they can encourage and develop them as well. Part of their responsibilities, as they see it, is to coach managers to develop a more participative management style, so when an individual comes to them with ideas, they listen and help them shape it in line with branch objectives.
"Many training folks are still hung up on the formal classroom-teach piece, but we look for ways in which we can offer simple guidelines more informally," McGuire says.
Like Franklin Covey's Walsh, Knowles believes in appealing to line managers about fostering creativity by speaking the language they understand and appreciate: bottom-line results. At Shred-It, branch offices that have adopted the corporate vision and values most enthusiastically have been the most successful, according to Knowles.
"One area I will be developing with HR in the near future is helping other managers model the excellent performers—the ones for whom creativity is a living concept," she says. "These people get promoted and earn higher bonuses because their front-line employees are constantly thinking of new ways to delight existing customers and attract new ones."
Nobody doubts that managing creativity is a major challenge, one that is multi-faceted in complexity. It starts with making innovation part of the long-term strategic vision of the company and requires constant reinforcement by senior management and the collaborative efforts of key organizational figures to identify, encourage, measure and reward the appropriate behaviors.
The good news is, those training professionals willing to reframe creativity in terms of a more business-oriented approach will enhance their standing in the organization by helping develop a culture that really does support innovation. Because, as professor Dean Schroeder points out: "You cannot push creativity through training, you have to pull it through need."
Liz Simpson is a freelance writer for Training. firstname.lastname@example.org