How to Nurture Creativity and Innovation in the Work Place

By Drew Robb

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America has led the world in technology innovation for almost two centuries. While Europe kick-started the industrial revolution, America took it into high gear: Mississippi steamboats, giant steam shovels, the telephone, the assembly line, the light bulb, typewriter, sewing machine and so more came out of the USA. That trend continued in the 20th Century as high tech came to the fore as Silicon Valley gave the world a host of semiconductor and computer breakthroughs.

More recently, however, that dominance has come under threat. To save a quick buck at home, many American firms have moved a lot of their know-how overseas. Much of our software is now coded in India or elsewhere. Almost all the computers and components are made elsewhere. And surprise, surprise: now we are seeing Indian, Chinese, Spanish and even Israeli firms fast becoming the darlings of IT.

So the question is this: Can innovation be nurtured so America the retains its dominance of the IT sector?

William Bumbernick, chief innovation officer at Alteva believes part of the problem may lie in the growth experienced by U.S. IT companies over the past half a century. To wit: as technology companies expand, the drive of innovation can be clouded by the needs of the business. “It’s important to make sure that you embrace the innovative spirit that creates a successful company to begin with in a way that ensures durable competitive innovation within your company,” he said.

After all, it was technological innovation that made the company successful in the first place. If you lose focus on that, you are certainly going to suffer when the next wave of startups changes the playing field. The business may still be able to concentrate on the dollars and cents, but that vital spark of genius within the company will start lagging, and it will move from the leading edge to follower.

“As our business grew, I became less involved in innovation and more involved on the business side of things, driving strategy,” said Bumbernick. “We decided to restructure our executive team to utilize our strengths where they needed to be within the company and that’s what put me in the chief innovation officer role.”

Any innovative company needs such a C-level posting to retain its roots in the creative side of the IT business.

Beyond that, an environment is needed that allows team members to propose new ideas without fear that they may be too risky, said Gary Quan, CTO at Diskeeper Corp.. You have to spend some time distinguishing between the good ideas and the great ones.

“A lot of ideas and solutions are proposed, but some of these can be misguided and may not result in long term success,” he said. “What is needed first is to find the real problem the users are experiencing and really need help on. Then from this, solutions can be innovated and verified as something the users see as significant value that they will gladly exchange for.”

His company spends a lot of time surveying users to discover what they really need rather than what might bring a quick return. That means working towards long term value.

Michael Patterson, CEO of Plixer International takes this a stage further. Product managers, he said, have to be careful not to overly specify design criteria for new features otherwise developers may avoid thinking on their own and neglect other more important upgrades. “Allowing developers a bit of freedom may result in unique features that meet stated goals yet add tremendous value,” said Patterson.

While he agrees that customers can be an important area of innovation, he cautions that this shouldn’t overwhelm the company’s vision and direction. For instance, customers might be keen on a particular missing feature but that shouldn’t necessarily throw everything else off schedule. Go over such matters with developers and managers to get the appropriate timeline worked out.

“Be careful about going with your gut on new features,” said Patterson. “Try to build consensus within the team as this will minimize the risk of wasting resources on features that won’t grow the business.”

Patterson recounted how his own company violated this principle. Cisco contacted Plixer about supporting its new performance monitoring technology for reporting on medianets (a media rich voice and video network). Cisco was exporting statistical information on the quality of the voice and video streams and needed a vendor to report on the new type of data.

Without talking with customers first, however, Plixer developers delivered several new reports to Cisco. Unfortunately, this didn’t provide the high-level information that was really required. Back to the drawing board. But this time, the developers knew what was really needed and delivered it. And based on further feedback from customers, the company is trying to sharpen the reports even more.“Customers, engineers, sales people and support should all be looked at as part of the research and development team,” said Patterson.

Innovation, thought, doesn’t have to only be something you are born with. Matt Starr, CTO of Spectra Logic actively works at the establishment of a systematic way to create and nurture innovation. The company, for example, has sent most of its engineering leaders, the CEO and most of its product managers through formal innovation classes.

“To nurture innovation you end up needing a small team people that are really focused on incubating startup ideas,” said Starr.

He accepts that innovation holds the element of risk. You have to be willing to accept the wins and the losses. On the plus side, the company has built the highest density, lowest power tape library around, while a removable RAID pack that didn’t sell well.

Large enterprise edition

It’s an oft-cited problem for companies that become the giants in their field: how do they stay ahead of a nimble pack of startups eager for their market share? There are many answers to that question. Companies like HP have invested in multiple startups, even spinning of good ideas originated internally into new ventures. Other companies set up development centers all around the world to foster bright ideas.

What is EMC’s solution? It attempts to facilitate what it terms "inclusive innovation.” This means everyone in the business lines across the company are encouraged to become involved in some way in discovering and advancing new ideas. An annual EMC Innovation Conference includes a dozen or more local events around the world on the same day, and features a global innovation competition open to all employees to contribute ideas and comment on one another’s.

“We also spend a lot of time in our local research programs in conversations with university researchers and founders of startup companies finding out what they’re thinking about,” said Burt Kaliski, director of EMC Innovation Network. "We involve our customers early on in these conversations, as well.”

Rather than seeing EMC’s size as a burden, Kaliski see it as an advantage: The knowledge you gain in one part of the company can benefit people in so many other parts as they work on their next solution.

“In busy corporate environments, there may not always be the time or channels to connect freely and fully about new ideas or to rapidly transition ideas into practice,” said Kaliski. “Some companies limit themselves by relying solely on their technical community to create new ideas instead of bringing in the broadest possible collection of perspectives. They need to understand that innovation takes on a myriad of forms and should find its source in every employee regardless where they live or what title might be on their business card.”

This factor can also play a big part in keeping headhunters at bay. Kaliski believes that employees invest their time where they can make a difference and when they feel engaged. Also, spend time with university research communities. The outside and forward-looking perspective that academic researchers provide can help bring business and technology leaders together across various parts of the company and enable them to solve problems more effectively.

“Make the incubation of new ideas a business priority, having formal processes in place to discover, create, and rapidly bring new ideas into practice,” said Kaliski. “It doesn't take much investment to figure out whether a new idea will work and where it belongs in the organization, but unless there is a formal process in place for doing so good ideas won’t become a reality.”

Drew Robb is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles specializing in technology and engineering. He has a degree in Geology/Geography from the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment, as well as hundreds of magazine articles.