“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”
A recent IBM survey of more than 1,500 CEOs report that creativity is the single most important leadership competency of the 21st century. A similar Adobe Systems poll of five thousand people on three continents reports that 80 percent of people view unlocking creative potential as the most important means of fostering future economic growth. And a recent Harvard Business School study outlining the must-have competencies of successful leaders highlights how strategy alone is increasingly insufficient to sustain a company’s competitive edge in today’s rapidly changing world. Creativity and innovation are the must-have competencies for businesses and organizations to flourish and thrive.
Admittedly, to many reading this, it may seem odd that the true differentiators of success for leaders and organizations today aren’t vision casting, strategic planning, problem solving, or even critical thinking. Rather, it is Creative Integration – being able to intentionally promote positive change by effectively tapping into the reservoir of creative capacity waiting to be activated within us and around us.
“…true differentiators of success … aren’t vision casting, strategic planning, problem solving, or even critical thinking. Rather, it is Creative Integration.”
As a former U.S. Air Force General Officer, I was privileged to architect and lead multiple large-scale, multi-billion dollar transformation efforts. From the frozen landscape of North Dakota to the dangerous battlefields of Afghanistan, I have learned the key to effective change derives from the ability to transform good ideas into meaningful action by promoting the power of multidisciplinary teams, encouraging others to build on one another’s ideas, and creating an environment where a spirit of innovation and inquiry multiplies the unique capabilities of everyone in the organization—regardless of rank, role, placement, or position.
Today, in my role as the Chief Strategy and Innovation officer for America’s largest privately held transportation company, MV Transportation, I am fortunate to be in a position to consistently architect and facilitate a path to make innovation an energy multiplier and talent liberator. Across our 20,000-person company in an industry core to America’s economic health, new threats to our existing business model emerge daily…making ongoing innovation essential to our continued success.
“…when people are given no guardrails while solving a broad problem, they tend to be surprisingly uncreative and unproductive.”
I want to share with you several key insights I have learned in my own leadership journey–considerations I believe will help to access the wellspring of creative potential at every level of your company:
Establish Innovation “Fence Lines”
Often, when people talk of innovation they conjure up thoughts of free-range thinking. This paints a picture of total freedom. Paradoxically, research bears out that when people are given no guardrails while solving a broad problem, they tend to be surprisingly uncreative and unproductive. Establishing “fence lines” to narrow the opportunity at hand avoids leaving too many questions open, makes it easier to focus, and limits uncertainty and confusion. When it comes to innovation, too much latitude and landscape can actually lead to paralysis rather than meaningful innovation and analysis.
“Good execution of fewer, bigger ideas will pay off. “
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, establishing a narrower view of what you are trying to tackle can actually enhance creativity and spur greater ingenuity. At the same time, it helps guard people from wasting time on generating ideas that have little to no chance of seeing the light of day. Your job as a leader is to establish a framework for a meaningful conversation. You accomplish this by establishing a central space where you collect and share ideas. I recommend using a dynamic tool such as User Voice with built-in opportunities for collaboration and feedback that will enable you to capture ideas in a labeled list. Assign an owner to those ideas with the greatest merit and establish definitive timelines for assessing and reporting back to the team. Good execution of fewer, bigger ideas will pay off.
Beware the Tyranny of Urgency
The many demands of organizations have a tendency to lure us into being overwhelmed with the needs of the immediate. After all, things need to be done now. Meetings scheduled. Sales closed. Reports finished. Quotas met. These are necessary things, but they do little to promote innovation. In fact, the more time we spend “heads down” fixated in responding to the immediate demands of today, the less time we spend “eyes out” scanning the horizon for opportunities to creatively influence tomorrow.
“Resolve to be in the present, but be about the future.”
The Gartner research group confirms that 35% of companies fail to make good decisions about significant changes in their business, largely because they merely react to information rather than taking time to think and reflect on how this new knowledge can create a desirable future. Protect yourself and your team from becoming paralyzed by the Tyranny of Urgency. Carve out 30 minutes a day to explore new trends in your industry; establish a weekly or monthly lunchtime ritual with colleagues to share information and ideas on how you can creatively inform your future; establish opportunities two to three times a year to bring diverse people together for a full day to “re-imagine” what could be. Resolve to be in the present, but be about the future.
Appreciate that Innovation is a Team Sport
Often times, when we think about innovation we harken to the example of the creative or courageous individual—the Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Bill Gates whose ideas have transformed the world as we know it. The truth of the matter is, great ideas most frequently occur at the intersection of many different points of view. Or, as the premiere design firm IDEO puts it, “Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius.” Effective collaboration fills the reservoir of ideas and replenishes the team.
An insightful Wall Street Journal article titled, Together We Innovate, highlights the importance of people working together in an effort to pull new ideas from multiple sources regardless of hierarchy or rank. It states that, “most companies continue to assume that innovation comes from that individual genius, or, at best, small, sequestered teams that vanish from sight and then return with big ideas.” The article goes on to highlight how “most innovations are created through networks — groups of people working in concert.” Your goal as a leader is to promote routine interactions amongst diverse stakeholders. Make experimentation, exploration and collaboration a consistent priority rather than a periodic novelty. Figure out what can or should be crowd-sourced. Make it clear you recognize innovation is a team sport.
“Make it clear you recognize innovation is a team sport.”
Innovation is about being courageous enough to break the rules that no longer make sense in order to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities. It’s a process, an education, and an invitation for each of us to discover new capabilities. It is, at its core, a shared journey of continuous improvement that positions each person on your team to have more of a positive impact on the world around them by building the organization that our times demand and your clients, customers, and constituents deserve.