Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Imagination for Innovation

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world" -- Albert Einstein

Imagination is the fist stepping stone towards innovation. People imagine a future and then start to work towards making that that dream come true.

Often people ask me the question: "How can we create a culture of Innovation in our Organization?" The answer to question is quite complex and there is no one single answer. Probably there are as many possible answers as there are organizations. However, there are few root issues that are common to all innovative cultures: Strong leadership, Risk taking ability, creativity among all employees, ability to harness imagination into creative ideas, and the ability to harness creative ideas into commercially feasible innovation.

In my opinion, imagination forms the very foundation of creativity. Every innovation in the world today began as some nebulous idea or as an imagination of the future. People who are creative tend to have great ability to display their imagination.

Everyone of us are born with the natural ability to imagine things, to dream and fantasize. But most people are afraid to share that imagination with others and that ultimately stops them from implementing it.

Creative Individual

Every individual is creative. Some people have the ability to publicly discuss their imagination and few people have the ability to convert their imagination into reality. Those who are able to convert imagination into reality are called as creative persons or visionaries.

As an exercise spend some time to identify people whom you consider to be creative & list them down. Next do some research about them, about their imagination of the future etc. Or if possible interview them and ask about their imagination of the future. Once you do this study, you will notice that all these people have a very fertile imagination and they are willing to share that imagination with others.

If you are trying to build a culture of innovation, then you must start with encouraging people to share their imagination and also build a system to harness these ideas into reality.

As a photographer, before taking a picture, I try to imagine what the final result should look like: I mentally remove all the clutter, position the right scenery, the right lighting and the right moment in my mind first. Then I go about getting those things implemented - like choosing the right time to photograph, getting the composition, adjusting the light etc. In one photo session, I then take 300-400 pictures of which I choose 3-5 photos and discard the rest. The lesson I learnt from photography is that I get lots & lots of ideas - but only a few are worth something, the rest are best discarded. Creativity requires risk taking - the more I experiment, the better are the chances of getting the right picture.

Pablo Piccasso painted about three canvases a week - only to discard the other two. ( This is on an average). Da Vinci painted several works - but few became very famous: Mona Lisa, Madonna on the Rocks, Last Supper. But all of his works have their own merit of ideas.
Everyone of us is an artist - a creative individual. It just takes effort to bring out the master piece.

Imagination and the Organization

Modern organizations of the industrial age has often struggled with Individual creativity. Great Henry Ford always complained that why does the pair of hands (he has hired) comes with a brain?

Ford and several other industrial organizations have then developed several efficient techniques in form of management processes, rules & regulations that effectively kill the individual creativity. While the centrally planned innovation (read R&D Labs) worked great for several decades in the industrial age. But with then new information age or in the knowledge economy, these practices will not succeed. In 2005, Ford Motors spent a little more than $4 Billion Dollars on R&D - yet the company lost more than $12 Billion in the same year.

In this new information age or in the knowledge economy, imagination & creativity will be the central theme for growth and survival of all organization. To do that, long standing firms must change their way of life. Companies must make creativity & imagination as essential components of its business strategy.

Building a creative work culture is not easy. Organizations often times resort to hiring creative individuals - who then quit soon after. Hiring creative people first and then rushing towards innovation will not work - its like putting the cart in front of the horse. You got the right components but not in the right order. Once a major manufacturing company in India hired a talented engineer who was also a creative painter. After a few days at work, he decided to decorate his office with some of his paintings. But when the building maintenance manager ordered it to be removed - quoting a company policy: "All wall hangings must be inline with the company values and must approved by the management ..." Needless to say that the engineer quit his job within few months.

Creative people thrive in a creative organization - and for that the organization must setup a right work environment. Once the environment is conducive for creativity, creative people will gravitate towards it and soon the organization will be filled with creative folks. Just look at Google, Apple, & IDEO - see the talent these organizations are able to attract.

To create the right work environment for creativity, it is essential to understand the characteristics of imaginative people. If you are going to employ creative people, you must ensure that you can meet their needs and maximize their creative potential.

Work Environment for Creativity

All creative individuals have three basic characteristics: Strong Motivation, Risk Taking, & Social skills.

Artists, painters, writers etc., all have strong sense of internal motivation. They are internally motivated to create. However due to other factors if this motivation is removed their work suffers. Money is not a major motivator but is necessary to meet their needs. Encouragement, appreciation and enthusiasm from peers, superiors and co-workers is essential as motivating factors. The challenge for the organization is to build such an environment where creative talent is encouraged & people are motivated.

Creative people take risks. To implement an imaginative idea compels people to try out new things or try something different. In a workplace, this translates to being flexible enough to new approaches, not punishing failures, and encouraging people even when an idea failed.

Creative people are highly social. They thrive in teams of people who are also equally creative. (birds of same feather flock together) Developing a work culture centered around teams of equally creative individuals or even good listeners is essential.

Creating a right environment for creativity involves making some cultural changes. Imagination & Creativity blossoms in an environment which cherishes:

  1. Freedom to try out new things
  2. Encouragement to try new things
  3. Recognition to individual & teams for their creative endeavors,
  4. Organizational desire to be creative.

Freedom or empowerment of the individual is essential for creativity. Organizations often create several rules which inhibit creative freedom. The famous cliché is "Our people are free to try out new things - but only after they seek the necessary approvals" This attitude will not encourage creativity.

Encouragement for creative people can come from simple sources - a few kind words, spending time to understand their ideas etc. Leaders should take it on themselves to encourage everyone around them, and this should spread all across the organization. Employees must encourage their peers, superiors & subordinates to try out new things.

Creative people need instant recognition. This encourages them in their work. Often times, companies have recognition system - which will be their annual recognition & awards program. These annual awards program are good, but it does not serve the needs of the creative individual. The best solution is to have an instant "kudos" system where people can give an instant recognition award - without having to go through a formal procedure.
I have several organizations that have innovation boldly written in their mission statement or in the vision statement or in their goals statement. But at the work place, there is hardly any activity or encouragement to build a creative organization. Organization need to build a strong desire at the unit levels to be a creative organization. Ideally, this translates to having a role model, nominating the creative person of the month, happiest employee, having small but creative challenges - like paper aeroplane contest etc. These kind of small activities has a huge impact on creating a creative workplace.

Closing Thoughts

Creative organizations are the ones that promote the imagination of the individual - and encourages sharing those imaginations. Organization must build a work place and a worlk culture that encourages individual's imagination.

Creating such an organization from scratch is tough - and its a lot more difficult for existing organizations to change their work culture and become a creative work culture. Several Indian manufacturing firms who are planning to transform into a knowledge driven organization will find that they have to build a culture of creativity and innovation. This would imply changing the organizational culture and that's daunting task.

1 comment:

Aijaz said...

Arun You have put down excellent thoughts in your blog here.
Only point I would like to add here is that "Organisations should encourage solving problems creatively, not correctly ". Then the creativity will flourish. Same is the poblem with our educational system too.