Does your organization have a critical need to discover new growth opportunities? Have you become frustrated by the enterprise’s inability to generate and implement new ideas? Faced with these challenges, many leaders conclude that they must find more creative talent. They seek to alter recruitment and selection processes, in hopes of attracting people who can think outside the box. These efforts, however, often prove misguided.
Ask yourself: Does your enterprise have a people problem or a situation problem? In other words, does the firm truly lack creative talent, or does the work environment stifle the creativity of the inventive and imaginative people already employed there? My research suggests that most companies do not have a people problem. Instead, obstacles and barriers stand in the way of creative individuals with original ideas. Leaders at all levels must find a way to clear the path so that these talented people can flourish.
The usual explanations for a lack of innovation center on the bureaucracy and hierarchy at many firms, the complacency that comes with past success, or the pressure to meet short-term financial goals. These issues certainly do play a major role in blocking creativity. However, my research suggests another cause. At many companies, certain mindsets serve as the primary barriers to creativity. These mindsets represent belief systems regarding how original ideas are developed, analyzed and executed. They permeate many organizations. Leaders need to identify and transform these mindsets, and they must help develop new capabilities regarding how employees pitch, select and implement original solutions to pressing problems. Let’s consider two of these inhibiting beliefs: the benchmarking and focus mindsets.
The Benchmarking Mindset
First, many firms love to benchmark the competition. Naturally, we need to stay on top of the latest strategic moves by industry rivals. However, we need to train our people to benchmark differently, or we run the risk of stifling creativity. In many instances, efforts to benchmark simply lead to copycat behavior rather than innovation, because human beings tend to fixate when they study something closely. We become trapped in thinking about a problem in a certain way, and we constrict our range of solutions. We often look to solutions that have worked in the past.
Moreover, companies often copy badly when they benchmark. They fail to recognize the full range of factors that led to a rival’s success. Thus, they copy elements of another company’s system, rather than understanding how the competitor’s whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. Consider Trader Joe’s, one of the most successful grocery retailers in the world. If you simply copied its private label merchandising strategy or its quirky marketing approach, you would fail to replicate its success. You would need to understand how these business strategies fit with its culture, talent attraction and selection strategies, and store location choices.
How do we overcome the fixation problem and avoid copycat behavior? We can train our people to benchmark in different ways. For example, we can ask them to look outside their industry and teach them to identify analogous products, industries and customer experiences from which they can learn. Because these companies will not be direct rivals, employees will be unable to simply copy strategies and practices. They will be forced to learn, gain inspiration and adapt what they have studied to your firm’s context. As an example, an assisted living center might study how the Four Seasons makes people feel welcome and delivers exceptional customer service, or a coffee shop might reimagine its drive-thru experience by studying how race car pit crews operate so quickly and efficiently.
The Focus Mindset
The focus mindset is a second major inhibitor to creativity in many organizations. We tend to think that isolating a project team, setting up a war room or innovation hub, and asking employees to concentrate exclusively on one problem for weeks will lead to a major breakthrough. We design off-site retreats in hopes that a few days of complete focus will lead to miraculous results. We are often disappointed in these efforts. Why? As it turns out, creativity flourishes when we gain distance from a problem periodically, amidst intense periods of focus and concentration. We have to “un-focus” from time to time to unleash our creative potential. However, “un-focus” does not mean multitasking, which is often harmful to the creative process.
We can achieve psychological distance from a problem in several constructive ways. Naturally, we can simply take a break or go for a long walk; studies show that such activities can be helpful. However, we can and should train our people to achieve psychological distance from challenging issues in other ways as well. We can teach them to achieve social distance – that is, to imagine how other people might tackle the same problem. Role-playing how competitors might address the issue or how people in other functional areas might develop a solution can be an effective technique.
In addition, we can provide opportunities for our employees to achieve physical or cultural distance. Traveling and working in different cultures can stimulate the mind in powerful ways. We see how other people approach similar problems in distinct ways, and we notice things that we overlook in our day-to-day routines at home. Selecting the right kinds of assignments for employees proves important as we try to help them achieve cultural distance.
Finally, we can teach workers to achieve temporal distance, or to “time travel” in some respect. For instance, Amazon sometimes asks employees with a nascent idea to draft the press release that will be issued months later, when the new product or service is completed and released. Asking people to think ahead to that moment in time can help them think about their embryonic idea in an entirely different way.
Step back, then, and think about your approach to stimulating creativity and innovation. Have you mistakenly assumed that the solution lies outside your organization, in the form of new talent that you can recruit? Perhaps you should take a new look at the people already in your midst. Ask yourself: How can we remove the obstacles in their path, and how can we teach them new approaches to stimulating creativity?