Foosball is not enough! On the relevance of the right culture of creativity
How can we meet market demand for more innovation? Our author advises: Instead of trying to invent the next iPhone, foster a culture of creativity that sets the stage for breakthroughs. Once that's achieved, innovation will happen by itself
In the mid-1990s, the author was a junior consultant taking part in a workshop with the management of a technical textiles manufacturer. The focus was on portfolio strategy. Among other products, the company made velvet used as light seals in film rolls. The largest customer: Kodak. In this workshop, the participants struck this product segment (velvet for film rolls) from their portfolio, as it was clear that digital cameras were going to replace their analogue counterparts. The author found it terribly dramatic to have to simply wind up a business line, and experienced in practice what he had learned only theoretically about Porter's five forces (substitution products). He still recalls today wondering how Kodak would respond to this market development. As we know today, Kodak fell by the wayside. Just like so many other companies, Kodak teams conducted innumerable workshops and held creativity meetings in search of solutions. What many people don't know: Kodak could have potentially even become the next Facebook. In 2001, Kodak acquired OFOTO – a company that had developed a platform for sharing photos (sound familiar?). Unfortunately, Kodak failed to take the decisive next step. The company only looked at how the platform could be used to print more photos, remaining on familiar business turf. Did they lack the creativity necessary to conceive of other applications? Were they unwilling or unable to venture into truly new and uncertain terrain? Or was the pressure simply too great for their creativity to develop?
We're witnessing similarly dramatic events today, driven by digitalisation. Existing business models are being called into question and new solutions urgently sought. New ideas are needed. But if we look closely, we see many players jumping aboard technological solutions with low entry barriers (multichannel services) while clinging to their existing business models. The strategy is: refocus on core competencies, reduce complexity, cut costs, consolidate sales. And indeed, in the short term this seems like the right thing to do, but only when enterprises work creatively on their futures at the same time. Otherwise, there is a danger of wasting away, as at some point the enterprise loses relevance to for its customers.
How do we generate creative ideas in difficult times?
Creativity is more important than ever. But how can we cultivate it – in difficult times?
The first thing we need to do is to de-mystify the term "creativity". It's not about inventing the next iPhone. It's about bringing together things that were previously separate to become more relevant for customers. It's nothing mysterious, but rather a regular continuous process (just as digitalisation in general is nothing more than a perfectly normal ongoing development). And for this process to be successful, management needs to create the parameters for creativity to emerge. Accordingly, this article does not offer how-to instructions for creative ideas, but rather seeks to identify criteria for a culture that sets the stage for creative ideas.
In many enterprises, the latest trend is to designate creative spaces replete with colourful beanbag chairs, pinboards, moderation cards, idea islands, etc.
Oh, and even more important: one – or more – foosball tables! Employees are dispatched to creativity seminars and trained as Scrum masters. Top management makes regular pilgrimages to Silicon Valley to see how Google works – so that creativity can gradually emerge. There is nothing wrong with that and it is certainly inspiring, but that alone does not generate any new ideas that really move the business forward.
Team Retail Excellence looked into which companies truly succeeded in developing a culture of creativity. In each case, the mechanisms proved to be the same:
1.) (Absolute) customer orientation.
Relevance for customers! This means that within the company, the problem is considered entirely from the customer's perspective. That entails critically reviewing existing processes, structures and products. When the iPhone was developed, it was obvious that this product would make another Apple product, the iPod, obsolete. Top management must make it attractive for employees to think exclusively about the customers and challenge everything else (even their own position). This is the only way that new solutions can emerge.
This follows from the previous point. A lot of creative innovations emerge out of necessity, and have limited potential. However, the enterprise should remain able to act, trust in its employees’ agility and communicate this trust. Employees must know that the company is counting on them, that they make an important contribution and that they both can and must actively commit. All too often, doing nothing and preserving the status quo appears safer than trying something new and running the risk of failure. Invert the paradigm: only those who venture outside their comfort zone are safe.
3.) Creativity is a learned skill.
Creativity requires not only flashes of genius but also hands-on skills. These are based mainly on techniques that can be taught. Design Thinking delivers key methods here. Elements from agile management are important, and Scrum techniques are valuable as well. And by the way, the in-house foosball table really does have a function in the creative process, at least as initially conceived. Many solutions emerge when we stop focusing intensely on a problem and do something else entirely. Suddenly, a previously unimaginable solution appears as if out of nowhere – a eureka experience. Whether or not the foosball table is used this way in all the companies that have one is very much open to question.
Create scope for communication – systematically across departments. New ideas and solutions seldom emerge in conference rooms. New perspectives from other people help in developing new solutions. For this to work, people need to be acquainted across departmental boundaries, talk to each other, trust one another and, most importantly, jointly benefit (see point 1). All too often, the only thing holding back a good solution is interdepartmental rivalry or mistrust. This is also one of the reasons why more and more young companies and start-ups design their break rooms as large kitchens. Not so that everyone can enjoy a good meal, but to create a relaxed atmosphere. As the current operational issue is put aside for the meal, new perspectives and creative ideas can be triggered in casual conversation with colleagues.
5.) Minimum viable products.
Create rapid solutions. Permit and motivate people to make mistakes. Trying, failing and learning from failure are basic elements of creativity. Develop MVPs that can be tested – according to the motto: If you’re not embarrassed by the first solution you bring to market, you’ve waited too long. Celebrate your partial wins – that’s part of the process. Be honest – how much is “fail fast” really practiced in your enterprise?
The bottom line: creativity doesn’t happen in conference rooms – only the right parameters lead to success.
Isn’t this disruptive enough for you? Can creative solutions truly emerge like this? Isn’t more firm and aggressive action needed? How we understand “disruptive” is a question of perspective. Look at those companies that have lost their way. Often, top management, and as a consequence middle management as well, are replaced in a desperate effort to achieve the desired turnaround, growth spurt, etc. But how often does that work? So the real question is: Will the company succeed in using its core to develop further, and preserve its long-term customer relevance?
For this to work, the parameters for promoting creativity must be implemented. Create new perspectives! Exploit digitalisation! Here more than anywhere else, new connections that benefit consumers can occur. None of Google’s great undertakings that today generate so much money for the company were planned – and often not even developed by the responsible departments. They came about because employees felt responsible for developing new solutions – even when these lay outside their own turf.
So don’t wait for the next blinding revelation. As Thomas Alva Edison said: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
is partner and corporate developer at Team Retail Excellence. He is an avowed pragmatist and loves to develop innovative and simple solutions with the resources that already exist. At the same time, he is convinced that consumer excellence is vital to survival.