One of the most imaginative rock bands of all time was Talking Heads.
Years ago, I remember reading an interview of David Byrne, the band’s main songwriter. He was asked how he goes about creating his crazy, catchy, classic songs. He said something like, “I cut out pictures from magazines and spread them out over my coffee table. Then I stare at them and see what happens.”
Imagination is messy. It cuts things out of context and reassembles them in an entirely new form.
Successful exercises in imagination produce innovation, and if the endeavor is commercial, lots of revenue.
It’s this messiness that perhaps explains why it is so hard for companies to harness the imagination of the workforce.
Businesses run on organization, structures, following rules, reducing errors and eliminating waste. But imaginations run on inspiration, free association, breaking boundaries, and trial and error.
Nevertheless, without an imaginative workforce to balance the business environment, a company in the long term will be unable to innovate, advance, compete — or even be aware that it is sinking into the sunset!
The corporate graveyard is full of companies that got crushed by competitors and marketplace changes they never saw coming.
Here are ways to cultivate and harness the imagination and creativity of your workforce — without creating chaos.
3 Ways to Support Innovation in the Workplace
1. Cross Train
Corporate silos are the enemy of imagination.
If you have no experience with something, you can’t imagine it being different.
In this age of specialization, it is all the more important for employees to experience different parts of the business.
Not only does cross training expand the horizons of the trainee, it also provides a free set of fresh eyes to the trainer!
Sometimes the best, most imaginative solutions to a problem come from people who are not carrying any historical baggage.
Nurture imaginative thinking by getting trainer and trainee together and asking them questions such as:
- What surprised you most in the training experience?
- What questions did you have the hardest times answering?
- How can you apply what you’ve learned to what you do in your work tomorrow?
2. Brainstorm Solutions
Even if you think you know the answer, you’re sometimes better off keeping it to yourself.
Cultivate imaginative thinking (your own as well as theirs) by brainstorming solutions to nagging business problems.
A good brainstorming session need not be formally scheduled — in fact, it may be quite a bit better to create one spontaneously, so attendees don’t have time to dig their mental heels into a particular position.
Scheduled or unscheduled, successful brainstorming sessions have these qualities:
- Everyone feels welcome.
- Everyone feels comfortable — comfy clothes, comfy chairs, coffee, food, etc.
- Everyone feels comfortable sharing ideas, no matter how outlandish they may seem.
- The issue under discussion is clearly stated and fully understood.
- No one feels pressured to reach a solution — the solution may come in five minutes or five months.
- It’s an interruption-free zone — meaning, of course, no cellphones allowed.
- Detailed notes are taken and distributed for further reflection.
3. Brainstorm Problems
Brainstorming is an effective way to find solutions, but it is also a good way to find problems!
I often think about companies such as Sears and Blockbuster, and wonder:
- Did they ever meet and ask, who is our biggest competitor going to be 10 years from now?
- How are today’s 5-year-olds going to change our business when they’re 25 and when they’re 45?
- What developing technologies are going to change how people use our products/services?
- What political, regulatory, cultural changes are going to change our business?
- What exactly are our insignificant competitors doing that is completely different from what we are doing?
- What kind of company would be a dangerous competitor for us if it decided to get into our niche?
This application of workforce imagination could be the biggest differentiator and success maker you could ever introduce into the company culture.
A lot of businesses confine these questions to the upper echelons of the C-suites, if they discuss them at all.
But when trying to picture the distant future (and in some businesses, that can be as close as one year away) input from a broad base of business and life experience casts the widest and brightest light.
That broad base of experience is right there, at hand. It’s the workforce.
Brad Shorr is Director of Content Strategy at Straight North, a full-service Internet marketing company specializing in SEO and web design. He has a broad background in marketing, sales, purchasing and executive management.