How to better foster creativity & reap the benefits
by Steve Blue
July 17, 2019

The odds of a new product idea reaching full commercialization are less than 4%. And that’s the best-case scenario, which probably explains why most companies don’t even attempt it.

In fact, those that do often do so half-heartedly; just to check a box and move on to the next project. Or their efforts are doomed at the outset, because their boss commits one of the following five cardinal sins, guaranteed to make certain innovation never sees the light of day.

1. You don’t make innovation a requirement for everyone. 

Many chief executive officers (CEOs) want innovation but only after the “real work” gets done. News flash: If you want to survive in the business world, you better make innovation the “real work.” Make it a top priority for everyone in the company, not just the engineering department.

How do you do that? By writing it into every job description, by rewarding and recognizing people who innovate—and yes, by asking people to leave if they don’t.

2. You don’t give people the training they need.

Making everyone responsible for innovation can be scary. Some people will be afraid they aren’t up to the job because they don’t perceive themselves as creative. But the truth is that everyone can be creative if they are trained in the principles of creativity. Your job is to train every single employee—not just white-collar engineers. Train the whole workforce, especially workers out in the field. 

I commissioned the previous chief creativity officer of the QVC network to teach my company’s entire workforce how to generate new and novel ideas. He rode shotgun with teams for the better part of a year, and now, creativity is in the company’s DNA. In the beginning, leadership told employees what it wanted them to work on, where and when they should work on it.

Then they would come back to leadership with ideas, who would then decide if the ideas were worth further pursuing. Now, employees decide which innovations or problems they want to work on and where and when they want to work on them. Then they implement the ideas without a boss being involved.

3. You don’t give people the time they need to innovate.

It is all well and good to expect innovation, but you must give people the time and space to do it. If you don’t, employees will default to the tasks at hand. After all, they get paid to complete such tasks.

In fact, not only must you give them permission, you must make it mandatory. I tell my employees that I expect 20% of their time to be spent on innovation, and I hire extra people so we can have both production and innovation. 

4. You don’t give people a place to innovate.

I built a high-tech space designed to facilitate innovation, which employees have named the “Creation Station.” They are welcome to gather there whenever they want to. And they often do, collaborating across the organization in the pursuit of new products and processes. Some people will tell you such a space is a waste of money and offers no return on investment (ROI).

Yet, most CEOs won’t think twice about spending a ton of money on a computer numerical control (CNC) machine because it has a calculable ROI. So does my Creation Station, which has generated ROI many times over with new products and improved processes.

The difference between the Creation Station and a CNC machine is that the machine has a finite useful life and must be replaced—not so with an innovation space. Other critics have said building such a space only gives employees the excuse to goof off there. To that, I say that if you cannot trust your employees not to goof off, you have the wrong employees. 

5. You don’t take risks in the name of innovation.

Boards and shareholders do not like risk. And neither do employees. They have all been conditioned to avoid and abhor it, so they avoid it like the plague. But, without risk, there can be no innovation. Without risk there can be no success.

The world rewards risk takers only when they succeed. But success is elusive in the world of innovation. The world of innovation is murky and uncertain. You shouldn’t expect guarantees.

Instead, expect failure and set the expectation with your board and employees that failure is likely, but not a given. You must give people permission to fail. Otherwise, they won’t even try. I tell CEOs all the time, don’t take risks; take big risks. Little risks have little returns.