What's working around here?

2009

There was a nice story in the press last year (Dallas Morning News March 2, 2008) about a 78 year old scrap metal worker, N.L. Jones. Given the opportunity to apply his creative talents to scrap metal and wood, over the last decade Jones has turned this useless material into thousands of bird houses. And in the process, created a new product and market for his employer.

The current financial crisis and the ever increasing rate of unemployment, highlights the need for managers to foster such creativity and innovation.

But how to do it?

Thankfully, over recent years there has been an increasing body of research that can help point us in the right direction and develop innovation and creativity.

Intrinsic Motivators
Not surprisingly, this old favourite came to the fore in the research. For example a recent study of hotel workers in Hong Kong (Chak-keung Wong & Ladkin, Feb 2008) found that the "risk-taking dimension was correlated to the intrinsic job-related motivators. These include opportunity for advancement and development, loyalty to employees, appreciation and praise of work done, feelings of being involved, sympathetic help with personal problems and interesting work."

Managers' Creativity Schema
As with all employee development, the genesis rests with the manager. It almost goes without saying, that if you expect employees to be innovative, then it must start with the manager.

In a major study published in the Academy of Management Journal (June 1996), it was found that managers could assist the development of innovation within their employees by:

  • Providing high levels of autonomy
  • Encouraging people to use a wide variety of skills
  • Enabling people to identify with the job
  • Ensuring the job had sufficient significance within the organisation
  • Providing personal feedback and ensuring the job had built-in feedback

Creativity Processes
Many will be familiar with one of the best creativity processes, the 6 Thinking Hats concept (the creation of fellow columnist Edward de Bono). This process can be used individually, in creative brainstorming or even normal team meetings to foster the creation, development and implementation of new ideas, concepts and products. As with all of de Bono's ideas, it's simple yet highly effective.

A process that I also like is the establishment of "Art Shows" where individuals and teams display their latest improvements on coloured posters. These posters not only include improvements made in work practices, products etc, but also communication processes such as project management, change management and negotiation.

One company that introduced the "Art Show" concept (they called it a "Day in the Sun") set up these posters in the cafeteria one afternoon each month. All employees were invited to visit the cafeteria, view the exhibits, have a coffee and talk with the individuals and teams who had posted their ideas. The ensuing development of improved ways of working across the organisation was quite amazing.

But over and above encouraging the intrinsic motivators, helping managers develop their "creativity schema" and using creativity processes, there's the essential requirement of a positive corporate culture.

If the organisation as a whole is to foster innovation and creativity, the key influencers in the organisation must demonstrate a positive mind set.

Unfortunately, as managers we quite often look to "fix problems" rather than encourage innovation. In a study by Ipsos Public Affairs (2007), 88 percent of US workers considered themselves to be creative. But when it came to creativity in the workplace, just 63 percent said their positions were creative, and a comparable 61 percent thought similarly about the companies for which they work.

One can readily see the difference in attitude that quickly occurs when two different types of questions are posed to employees. If you ask 5 or 6 employees; "What needs to be fixed?", you will be presented with a list of complaints (which in fact are often minor, but start a negative discussion).

On the other hand, if you ask another 5 or 6 employees "What's working around here?", you'll start a meaningful discussion about some of the key drivers that make the organisation successful.

Some organisations have used the "What's working around here?" approach by bringing groups of people from across the organisation together for short sessions. In these sessions, participants discuss in pairs their answers to "What's working around here?". The facilitator then draws out many of their answers and the group decides on three key drivers that the organisation will focus on over the coming months. This process is simple, inexpensive and encourages the development of innovation and creativity.

As a manager in these challenging times, will your team be throwing out the unusable scrap, or building new bird houses?

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden is MD of the Australian National Learning Institute and author of What To Do When You Become The Boss. He has been a boss many times over. He's also worked for many. Some of these relationships have been fantastic and some did not work as well as they might have.