Innovation is all about matching a technology to a market need. That is the essence of new product development (NPD). The entire innovation process, whether related to actually engineering the product or addressing a market in a new and unique way, demands high levels of inspiration and creativity among all involved in NPD. Creativity and inspiration is not a process that can be turned into an efficient “algorithm” like so many other business processes. Not much new in those statements. The real question is what levers can management pull in order to influence high levels of creativity? That is the subject of this article.
To begin, I would contend that creativity and inspiration rarely happens solely as someone sits by themselves in an empty room, and with no prior communication or interaction with others. Someone may indeed come up with a fabulous idea on how to solve a vexing problem doing chores over the weekend, but more than likely there was some interaction with others that helped that person “connect the dots” so to speak. The point is that at the root of inspiration and creativity is communication with others. That is why teams are so powerful in NPD: a team is a collection of individuals who come together and produce something of value that is greater than what each individual could do by themselves.
Communication in the context of NPD is driven by three needs (1). These include a) for coordination, b) for information, and c) for inspiration. The first two are usually associated with formal project management and consists of project meetings, design reviews, scrum meetings, etc. Even here, though, chance informal encounters with others on the team or with other functional groups can help. In other words, there is always a formal and an informal mode of communication. How often have you been getting your morning pastry and happen to strike up a conversation with someone and find out something that you were unaware of, but was of great benefit to you and your work? Chance encounters and serendipity are important considerations, especially when it comes to the third need for communication: for inspiration.
I will focus this article on three ways that management can foster a creative NPD team environment. They include the impact of virtual work arrangements, how the physical space influences communication, and an emphasis on what I would call “looking beyond these four walls”. These three factors share some common threads which we will discuss. These three are by no means the only things that matter. For instance, an important cultural influence on creativity is how management treats failure in NPD. Truly innovative companies will have a high tolerance for failure. They understand that failure is part of the process and key to knowledge generation. If “good” failure is punished in your organization, then humans being what they are, you can expect a decrease in risk taking and a creeping mentality of “that is not how we do things here”. This could be another way of saying “I am loathe to take a risk because of what it means to my career”.
I recently wrote a blog article entitled “The New Employment Deal and the Impact on Knowledge Workers”. One of the topics I addressed was the growing use and need for flexible work arrangements, including telecommuting. To take that one step further, there was an excellent article in Harvard Business Review recently entitled “The Third Wave of Virtual Work”. In that article, the authors define telecommuting as the second wave of virtual work (the first wave being virtual freelancers). What is interesting in the context of my argument is what the article defines as the third wave: virtual coworkers. A recent article in Fast Company entitled “Working Beyond The Cube” was also dedicated to this subject.
So what is this so called “third wave” of “virtual coworkers”? The concept that many companies are discovering is that for those who might be able to work at home, of greater benefit is to have them work from one of a growing number (1,800 currently and doubling every year since 2005) of dedicated coworking locations. These facilities are specifically designed to provide a communal work environment for knowledge workers who may otherwise work by themselves. The idea is to create the environment where they can come in contact with people from completely different backgrounds that might spur a flash of creativity or inspiration. Innovative companies will immediately see the benefit of this type of work environment, even if that employee could work from the company’s offices. So many innovative ideas in the recent past have come from the clash of ideas from multiple disciplines. You see this playing out in a dramatic fashion throughout academia as multi-discipline research centers are becoming so important to leverage knowledge and create the environment for new innovations. The Fast Company article estimates there are 90,000 coworkers worldwide, with half in the U.S. alone.
A second related lever that management can manipulate is the company’s physical work space, an often ignored factor. To foster communication for inspiration and creativity, proximity is important, the same factor driving virtual coworking arrangements. There is much research to back this up. Allen and Henn (1) provide data on how the probability of weekly communication falls dramatically if two co-workers are physically separated by as little as 20 meters. The Fast Company article mentioned previously cites a recent study of some 35,000 academic articles and found that the best, most widely cited articles came from colleagues sitting less than 10 meters apart. There is a growing emphasis on teams being co-located in order to improve communication, and increase chance encounters. There is much more emphasis now on open work environments that can foster informal communications. Even how hallways are designed in buildings can be important to the flow of traffic to increase, for instance, chance encounters between different functional departments as they get their morning cup of coffee. The point is: don’t disregard how your physical space is designed and its influence on communication for inspiration and creativity.
A final factor where management can influence inspiration and creativity is to set an expectation that not all knowledge is within the company. Management must foster a mindset for what I call “looking beyond these four walls”. Over time, companies can become very inward looking, believing that they can solve every problem with their existing knowledge. This is especially true if the company has been very successful in the past. To some degree, this is what is at the root of Clayton Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation: successful companies miss a new market need or a change in the technology that will obsolete their existing product. They fall in love with their product and their knowledge and ignore what is going on around them.
How can management guard against this? One way is to have a “design view” of your business. A wrote a recent article entitled “What Does Having a Design View Mean to You?” where I talk about the concept of Roger Martin’s “knowledge funnel” and the importance of pushing the organization to think about new mysteries to solve, not just relying on current knowledge and efficiency. Another way is to encourage outside interaction. Maybe it is with a collaboration with a university to have graduate students work on a problem that no one has time to look at. Perhaps bringing in outside experts to engage employees. Maybe it is by setting an example of reading widely in and out of your area of expertise and encouraging employees to join and participate in outside organizations. Like anything, just recognizing the problem can be important.
How does your organization encourage communication for inspiration? Do you have any experience with virtual coworking arrangements and how that has specifically lead to an innovation? What about your physical work space? What has worked to foster communication?
(1) See in particular pages 27-29, but several chapters in this book provide excellent information about the role of communication in NPD effectiveness: Thomas J. Allen and Gunter W. Henn, The Organization and Architecture of Innovation. (New York: Elsevier, Inc., 2007)
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