I was accused recently of not being open to new ideas. I was so taken aback. you could have scraped me off the floor! I like to think that I have built my career, and a few businesses, on the back of my creative ability and being open to fresh approaches and radical concepts, , yet here I was accused of squashing innovation at work by failing to seize on a new suggestion, But here’s the rub. What my accuser was overlooking is that there are ideas and then there are ideas and it’s not as simple as saying here is one – you need to be able to act on it.
Creative ideas for the sake of them, ones that cost a fortune to business or are too difficult to implement are pointless. Ideas per se are cheap but good ideas are worth their weight in gold. A first original idea offered up will almost never be accepted. To be truly creative you need to generate hundreds of ideas before you can narrow them down to get a favoured few, those that really pass that gold standard. When I have come up with a good, creative idea it is only after I have thought of a multitude of other daft ideas and at the end of an exhaustive selection process whereby the chaff is rejected and only the wheat is left.
Generating lots of ideas does not come easy and we are probably not so good at it if you consider that our education system has not prepared us for such thinking, primarily teaching us to select only one right answer. Exams often have multiple choice questions whereby you eliminate all the wrong answers, leaving you with the single correct one, subtly teaching us that when you find that right answer you have solved the problem. The fact is that in real life there are often many possible answers to the problems we face and that is why we must produce multiple ideas to avoid generating the obvious, easy answers. The more ideas you come up with the more likely you are to produce a whole spectrum of creative ideas. Think of it like Gary Hamel does who talks about ‘corporate sperm count’ – the virility test of how many ideas your business generates. If your count is low, you’re not likely to be ‘idea-fertile.’
History can back this up. Thomas Edison was well known for his countless experiments. The creation of the electric light took over 9000 experiments and that of the storage cell around 50,000 and he still holds the record for the most patents ever, with over 1090 in his name. After his death 3500 notebooks full of his ideas and jottings were found. It was the prodigiousness of his output that led to so many breakthroughs. Similarly, Picasso painted over 20,000 works and Bach composed at least one work a week. So, you can see that the great geniuses produced quantity as well as quality.
We can’t all be Picasso, Edison or Bach but we can still be productive. When I am talking to companies about recruiting new employees, more often than not the need for the person to be ‘creative’ comes up as a required competency. I often caution companies to really ask if this is needed. Is it a frequent requirement or used skill or is it just a nice one to have? Sometimes I even point out how having creative ideas can actually detract from good performance – do you really want a maverick paying your salaries every month?
While the most innovative companies revel in multitudes of ideas, there are still many managers who fear that too many will be unmanageable and those who think that encouraging their generation – i.e. corporate creativity - is not synonymous with good business. A recent Harvard Business Review commented that “creativity is not the miraculous road to business growth and affluence that is so abundantly claimed these days. And for the line manager, particularly, it may be more of a millstone than a milestone. Those who extol the liberating virtues of corporate creativity over the somnambulistic vices of corporate conformity may actually be giving advice that in the end will reduce the creative animation of business. This is because they tend to confuse the getting of ideas with their implementation—that is, confuse creativity in the abstract with practical innovation; not understand the operating executive’s day-to-day problems; and underestimate the intricate complexity of business organizations.”
Your organisation may not be open to ideas. A recent Accenture survey, “Corporate Innovation is within Reach”, emphasised just how hard it is for people to develop new ideas in a corporate environment, other than in companies like Google and 3M that have gone all out to nurture innovation. The survey found that among the corporate employees:
- 53% said their company does not support ideas from people at all levels of the workforce
- 77% say that new ideas are rewarded only when they are implemented and proved to work
- 36% say they are too busy doing their job to pursue new ideas
- 27% have avoided pursuing an idea within their company because they think there may be negative consequences
- While 49% believe that management support for new ideas is important, only 20 percent say that such support exists
- 42% believe that tolerance for failure is important to support innovation, but only 12% believe their company is does a good job of providing this
- More 51% say their company has a timeline of 6 months or less to decide if a new idea has been successful, but 76% say that this period should realistically be stretched to about a year.
So the question is; are you open to ideas, lots of them, because if you are you may find that one gem that propels the organisation forwards and upwards into the future or are you closed off because it is too much like hard work and irritating every time you have to deal with a nonsensical notion? It’s Catch 22 and in the words of the novel’s main protagonist, Yossarian, ‘That’s the best catch of all’. That must be the one to go with, then!