Encouraging Creativity: You Never Know Where the Next Billion Dollar Idea Will Come From

There is nothing mysterious about creativity. Contrary to what many writers write and to the many so-called myths out there; it is not a brain thing or a province of just a few. As a matter of fact everybody is creative every day. We never do the same thing twice – from brushing your teeth to writing your name. Although we think we do these things the same, there are small differences from each repetition that will never appear again. We don’t think about these changes as creativity but they are.Some people are able to recognize these changes and capitalize on them where others are not. Many organizations aren’t able to capture them either.

Numerous inventions that we use and enjoy every day come from someone who accidentally noticed some variation from what normally happened. Maybe you remember the story of how the microwave oven came about. Or, perhaps one of these accidental inventions that are all the result of someone noticing unrelated activity. Although all companies want creativity and innovation most are not prepared to support it. Alan Robinson of the University of Massachusetts reports, “In every case studied (600 creative acts) the truly innovative aspects of the creative acts ended once they reached the level of management.” Over the years we have seen huge differences in the ability of a company to support a creative idea. Years ago 3M, in my opinion, was clearly the exemplar. They had a process that included time and funds to be used to support employees with creative ideas. In 1977 CEO Lou Lehr started The Challenge ’81, a program aimed at achieving 25% of all sales from products with less than five years on the market.

Later it was 30% every four years. All technical people were expected to follow the 15% rule which was that they dedicate 15% of their time to projects of their own choosing. As one 3M CEO put it, “No matter how large 3M becomes, the spirit of innovation will stay intact as long as people have the freedom to pursue their ideas.” For over 100 years, 3M Company was designed for creativity and it has certainly paid off handsomely. Does your company encourage creativity? Here is a checklist to see how your organization (to include supervision and management) rates in supporting creativity and innovation.

  1. Respond positively to all ideas.  Just thinking about how the company can be improved is a positively reinforcing behavior. If reinforced, the person will present more ideas. That is the test for whether the presentation of the idea was positively reinforced. 
  2. Ban suggestion boxes. These are impersonal and fraught with all kinds of obstacles that reduce innovation and creativity.
  3. Avoid formal processes for submitting an idea. Most processes are barriers as they require too much time and effort on the part of the suggestor. The process should be personal, period. Make the process of submitting an idea as simple as a conversation with a friend. Even saying something like, “Sounds good.  Write it up.” is a barrier. Many people are uncomfortable writing anything and as easy as it seems can be a significant factor in reducing ideas.
  4. Managers have the authority to give employees time and a place to work at improving their ideas. You may say, “That is a great idea. Why don’t you spend Friday afternoon, after you finish your work, looking at how this idea might impact other departments?”
  5. Managers have a budget for supporting the development of ideas. In addition to time and space, do you have some funds, not much necessarily, but some money to support further development (materials, books, equipment, etc.) without going through purchasing?
  6. Managers and supervisors know how to shape behavior. This is one of the keys to increase engagement. If you are able to make the simplest suggestion a valuable activity, you are on the way to valuing any and all improvement.
  7. Employees have the opportunity to present certain ideas to executive levels of the organization. They should be able to present ideas with the knowledge that it will be a positive experience. Executives should know enough about behavior to encourage employees to be concerned about ways to make the organization more successful even when the organization may not be able to benefit from the idea at hand.
  8. The organization does not pay for ideas. You might have some way for the person to benefit from ideas that benefit the organization (profit sharing, job assignment, etc.) but you don’t want employees to work on an idea in their garage or basement because they are afraid others might steal it. Idea sharing should always be reinforced. Remember that ideas are not valuable until they create value for the organization. Organizations that are generous with the value created from employee ideas are the ones that get the most of them and subsequent increases in value.

If you answered “no” to more than half of the above items, it’s a strong indication that creativity and innovation are not being encouraged in your organization. Use this opportunity to change that. Learn all you can about fostering creativity. Regardless of title, we all can play a part in that. And, who knows, you or someone you encourage, may just be the next person to come up with that billion dollar idea!


Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.