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  Jane Miller


Articles -- Nurturing innovation

There is nothing quite as exciting as working with a team of highly creative individuals in an environment where innovation is valued and nurtured.

I have worked in environments at both extremes of the spectrum: one where rules and procedures stifled almost every possibility of creativity; and another where innovation was valued, encouraged and nurtured.

The innovative companies were not only the most enjoyable (and fun!) places to work, but my creative abilities seemed to blossom in those environments.

So, if you're looking for a company that is absolutely sparking with the excitement of creating innovative new products or services, what are some of the things you should be looking for?

The first thing that will strike you about a company that truly values creativity and innovation is the get away spaces they provide for their employees.

I remember being shown around a company when being interviewed for a job there. They showed me a very comfortable coffee room where they offered fruit, healthy snacks and fruit juice (all for free) to their employees. There were also many relaxing places scattered around the company, where you could sit alone or in small groups, and there was even a pool table and a gym. This company recognized three simple facts:

  1. When you're stuck on a problem it's best to get your mind off it for a while,
  2. The best creative ideas happen when you're away from your desk,
  3. The best products are honed during informal discussions with colleagues.

In addition to informal discussion with colleagues, companies that are truly committed to excellence will hold regular formal product reviews. At Pixar Animation Studios, a few dozen animators and computer scientists review each film segment on a daily basis. The group is "brutally critical" and also totally committed to coming up with solutions to fix problems. The lively debate in these sessions results in fresh ideas and alternative out-of-the-box solutions.

In addition to sharing ideas within your project team, some companies hold an annual conference in which their researchers present their latest research. This provides an opportunity where ideas from one field might stimulate new insights in another - a concept called 'conceptual blending'.

Another good sign is if the company has employees move into different project areas. This not only helps to develop you as a professional, it also re-kindles your interest and energy level. In addition, you will add a new perspective to the team you are joining. This practice is so effective that 3M takes it even farther - if a product is suffering, an entirely new team is brought in from many different divisions of the company. This offers vastly new perspectives and new approaches.

Some companies, like Wieden & Kennedy (the highly innovative advertising agency) mix total newbies with seasoned employees. The newbies come up with totally off-the-wall ideas, which are often impractical but it breaks away from boring, predictable ruts of the past. Dan Wieden calls it "incorporating a little weirdness into the creative process".

Highly innovative companies also provide opportunities to share ideas with other companies by sending their employees on conferences, courses, seminars, or encouraging them to write papers and/or articles.

Probably the most striking sign that a company values innovation is if they subscribe to "the 15 percent rule" in which every researcher is encouraged to spend 15 percent of his or her time pursuing speculative new ideas. This idea originated at 3M and was adopted by Google and other highly successful companies.

Your personal commitment to creativity

But even if you're not currently in a company that nurtures creativity, there are many things you can do to nurture your own creativity in your professional life.

Go out and converse with people in other areas of the company. Every lunchtime, one of my former colleagues used to go to the company cafeteria, look around for people he didn't know and ask if he could join them. He said it was great finding out what other people did in the company and discussing their challenges and their ideas for change.

Look at some of your most tedious tasks and think about ways to enhance the process. When my husband worked at British Telecom years ago, doing testing of some equipment, the job was so boring and repetitive that he decided to build a device that would automate the process. Similarly, I have created Excel spreadsheets to automate processes I use for my business accounting.

Get on to mailing lists to find out about various free seminars on a variety of topics - both in person, webinars and telecals. Broadening your field of interest often stimulates insights in your own area.

Share your innovative ideas with colleagues and people in other fields and welcome critical debate on feasibility.

Nurture friendships with creative, innovative people, look for opportunities to learn new skills in different areas, and never be afraid of doing something wildly different.

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