Innovation in the Office

How To Build A More Creative Workplace Culture

InnovationHow can you build a more creative workplace culture? For starters, let your staff take the lead.

It’s not enough that the first thing you see at Caliendo Savio Enterprises (asi/155807) is an arresting 15-foot-tall chair at the company’s font door. The colossal red Adirondack chair that can hold several adults at once makes visitors feel like ants and “puts a smile on everyone’s face,” says Mark Ziskind, COO of CSE, a Top 40 distributor in New Berlin, WI. But it does much more, he believes. It represents the creative force that the company has championed for the past five years. And it’s only the beginning.

Inside CSE, guests are greeted with graffitied walls and movie-themed conference rooms – Goodfellas, The Matrix and Reservoir Dogs among them. An image of Jimmy Hendrix is on display in the lobby as a sort of revolutionary symbol. Every department participates in the departure from ordinary. The accounting team, for example, sits surrounded by a wall of surfing imagery – something employees painted themselves – and a collection of lawn chairs by their desks.

But what exactly is the point of all this extreme space? According to Ziskind, it’s a declaration that CSE embraces innovation.

The Right Atmosphere
CSE’s innovation pledge is not window-dressing designed to strengthen a corporate mission statement. Ziskind knows one of the quickest paths to growth is through innovation, and there’s research to back up the point. The 2012 Global Innovation 1000 Study, Making Ideas Work, by New York-based global management and strategy firm Booz & Company, found that companies adept at idea generation and conversion outperform their peers, producing consistently higher revenues. The bottom line is that distributorships that innovate can vastly outpace their competitors.

While building a corporate culture of innovation is a major plus for a business, it’s important to keep certain considerations in mind before doing so. Cool-looking visuals alone won’t do the trick, and at CSE, the company’s creative environment is just one way managers inspire employees to embrace innovation.

Refusing to dismiss any ideas, encouraging staff to find inspiration for change outside of the industry, and fostering an unorthodox work environment are all part of the fuel for greater innovation at CSE – all points driven not by managers, but by employees.

That’s smart, experts say. Managers striving for innovation often make the classic mistake of forcing change upon employees. Certainly, corporate execs can make pronouncements to staff about their innovation goals, but it’s important to also encourage innovation that grows organically, consultants contend.

“It’s not about getting out there and saying, ‘I’m pressing hard for ideas,’” says Scott Edinger, founder of Edinger Consulting Group, a Tampa, FL-based firm specializing in leadership strategy and business growth. “That can be counter-productive because all you’re doing is pressing for new ideas.”

At the most innovative offices, staff members, not management, take the innovation lead, insists Edinger and others. That’s exactly what happens at Promotionally Yours (asi/490240), based in Kansas City, KS. In fact, it happens to the point where managing partners Jeff Bowles and Jeff Levy aren’t always privy to their company’s innovations before they take place. That’s the way they like it, Bowles and Levy say.

“While Jeff and I created the bare bones outline of our customer service model, our long-term customer service team members took the basic structure we outlined five or six years ago and have since completely overhauled, modified and made changes to make their own workday more efficient and improve the client experience with us,” Bowles says. “We consider it a big success when the process changes and Jeff and I aren’t aware.”

That kind of statement may seem counterintuitive or even dangerous from a management standpoint, but consultants say the ongoing implementation of changes to things like order processing, even (or perhaps especially) without upper management awareness is a strong indicator that an innovative culture exists.

Soren Kaplan, managing partner at Innovation Point, a consulting and strategy firm based in San Francisco, points to a company where workers leave wooden nickels on each other’s desks (sometimes anonymously) to acknowledge innovative ideas that lead to company improvements. The idea wasn’t suggested by managers, but rather began spontaneously one day and caught on when other employees heard about it.

Innovation Motivation
Recognition for ideas, Kaplan says, is the biggest motivator when it comes to building a culture of innovation – and recognition from peers is just as impactful as it is from supervisors. In the case of the wooden nickels, “that was not done by an executive saying, ‘we’re going to create a recognition economy and reward people formally,’” Kaplan says. “It was an organic thing where someone got the idea to do it, and it was authentic and people experienced it and wanted to give back in surprising ways.”

That said, while employees may offer up innovative ideas and recognition without being prompted, it’s still important for management to inspire innovation among a company’s workforce. How? One good way is to reward employees with time off. But rather than a free day without work, Kaplan says, it’s smarter to allow employees to take three hours to think freely about a specific problem the company is facing and come up with possible solutions.

For one San Francisco-based startup, that means allowing staff to have a daylong adventure, skydiving or wine tasting, say, with the directive that through those events the employee should “make connections to what they experienced back to the business,” Kaplan says.

According to Ziskind, CSE employees are similarly encouraged with a nudge to visit surf shops when they’re traveling to places like Huntington Beach, CA. “If they see something cool they’ll buy it and bring it back,” Ziskind says. “A lot of interesting decorating trends come out of the surf and skateboard culture.”

InsetRegardless of how innovation is inspired within a company “it has to develop both from management and organically from the staff,” Kaplan says. One rarely works without the other. At smaller companies, Kaplan suggests that managers play more of a guiding role in helping staff focus on innovations that need to be addressed first. But that doesn’t mean workers can’t indulge in more fanciful innovative ideas on their own time as well.

At Top 40 distributor HALO Branded Solutions (asi/356000), based in Sterling, IL, innovation is a moving target that the company addresses on an as-needed basis, says Marc Simon, the company’s CEO. To inspire staff to innovate, the company developed continuous improvement committees 10 years ago. Each committee, which is made up of eight to 12 people, is a short-lived group created to address a need for a few months, solve the problem, institute new processes or ideas and then disband.

A cross-section of employees can form any continuous improvement committee, and the suggestion of a committee can come from any worker. “There are always a couple in existence,” Simon says, adding that any changes implemented from the committees are tracked for their effectiveness after being put in place.

That’s wise, says Edinger, since the goal of creating a culture of innovation should be to focus on specific outcomes the company hopes to achieve, rather than just dream up nebulous, lofty goals. And ad hoc committees prompted by staff come from building trust within an organization and allowing people to challenge the status quo, Edinger says.

Giving employees the ability to act on those desired changes snowballs into an innovative culture almost overnight, insist Bowles and Levy. Innovation is largely about freedom. “We give them the freedom to craft, modify and create and change processes,” Bowles says. “You like your job when you’re able to control your job. You’re gratified when you can implement your ideas and see them work.”

There Are No Bad Ideas
There is no doubt this approach can be scary for managers who are worried about the bottom line, making mistakes and losing customers to competitors. But experts and industry insiders alike feel strongly that an innovative culture can’t exist without failure. Edinger calls it a “consequence-free zone,” where employees can generate ideas, implement changes and aspire to outcomes, even if they don’t nail it the first time around.

“You expect a certain number of mistakes in order to get great ideas out of it,” Kaplan says, “and then you really need to not penalize people for those mistakes.” At one firm Kaplan worked with, the company handed out “the golden turkey award for the biggest failure,” Kaplan says, as an endearing testament to progress, albeit with mistakes along the way. “They want to promote risk-taking.”

Similarly, at CSE, calling an idea bad is essentially forbidden, Ziskind says. “One bad idea might get you down the road that gets you to the right idea,” he says. “If you say it’s stupid, the person shuts down for the meeting.” All are encouraged to submit ideas at CSE. As an example, witness the art department conducting a seminar exclusively on hat decorations to help the company save on decorating costs.

That doesn’t mean a distributor has to run with every idea. The key, again, is to focus on outcomes, Kaplan stresses. Distributors need to ask themselves: “What are the big problems we’re trying to solve?” Will a specific idea really make a difference? “If it doesn’t then I wouldn’t reward it,” Kaplan says. “If it does, then reward it.”

When CSE developed a mobile retail unit for Dirty Girl Mud Runs nationwide, the distributor’s IT team was called upon to be innovative and develop a way to handle thousands of transactions at each event, quickly. “We doubled their per-head revenue,” Ziskind says, and created a more enhanced buying experience for Mud Run participants.

Creating that mobile unit seemed more than a little daunting at first, especially because it meant essentially turning a traditional distributor firm into a retailer. But by focusing on the desired outcome – to handle thousands of transactions at each event quickly so participants don’t have to wait in line – the company was able to come up with an innovative idea formulated around a specific task. “The IT guys found a solution to run a mobile outlet around the country with no hard wires,” Ziskind says, something that was a money-making game changer for Dirty Girl organizers.

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