Situation: Creating Innovative Climates
Assessment Tool Helps Organizations Understand Creativity
Many of us are so inundated with
paperwork that we forget about one of our brain's most
While it may be more apparent in our everyday
leisure activities and hobbies, it is just as important
to bring creativity to our jobs as well. As immeasurable
as creativity may be at first, it is essential for the
growth of any organization.
Steven Zeisler of Zeisler Associates, Inc.,
shares with us the nine dimensions of a creative climate
and how it can lead to measurable results, innovation and
a lively organization.
Most of us have at least one. Many have
two or three. Some might have nearly dozen. What? Pet
projects-work that no one has asked us to do, but that we
believe might help our organization develop a new product
or a new approach to an existing one. But when do we do
this work? We squeeze it in over lunch or on weekends,
passively resenting the intrusion into our own time, but
hoping that if the new project pans out, we will be
Imagine, however, working for an organization that
encouraged you to spend over an hour each day working on
that special project. Since the late 1950s, 3M has done
just that with their relatively well-known "15 percent
rule." At 3M, employees are instructed to spend 15
percent of their day- practically one day a week-on pet
projects using 3M's resources. It's no wonder, sticky
notes aside, that 3M is recognized as one of the most
innovative companies in the world.
But how do companies, perhaps without the resources
of 3M, create environments where creativity and
innovation flourish? Unlike many who point out that truly
innovative cultures take years to develop, Steven Zeisler
of the Philadelphia-based Zeisler Associates, Inc., knows
that while a culture may take decades to change, an
organization's climate for creativity and innovation can
be jump started. "The difficulty with innovation," sighs
Zeisler, "is that it cannot be measured like quality.
Deming talked about innovation and culture but corporate
America never embraced it. Innovation is a lot fuzzier
than quality. Saying we want innovation in our companies
is akin to waving the flag."
Defining Creativity-Not an Easy Task
Symptomatic of this ambiguity are the varying
definitions one hears when asking leadership: "What is
innovation?" Responses vary from new to unique products
that sell to a creative culture. Zeisler's concise
definition of innovation is "anything new that adds
value, which may or may not be immediately measurable, to
the organization which is an outgrowth of the
"But wait!" you cry. Creativity is being driven
out of organizations on a daily basis through processes,
rules, procedures and the ever-increasing pressure to get
a greater return on shareholder equity. "Not so,"
responds Zeisler. "We never lose our creativity. It is
still there. While it may not be coming out in the
organization, it is in all sorts of ways, with our
hobbies, our families and more."
Part of the problem is that most of the studies
around creativity are the study of genius, which means
"touched by God." So we have created an enormous mystique
around the idea. In fact, if you ask a group of
co-workers to name creative people, you most likely will
hear Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare,
Beethoven-primarily white, European males. All of this
points to our denial of the creativity and the ability to
innovate that each of us innately possesses. And that,
unfortunately, according to Zeisler, is the creativity
and innovation paradigm of many of our organizations. But
there are processes and tools capable of producing
measurable results to enhance an organization's
"The management breeding ground of today is to
move an organization from point A to point B to point C,"
Zeisler adds. "The idea is to do more of what we are
doing. Doing more of what we have been doing along with
problem-solving activities may be sufficient approaches
in times of stability, but in the volatile markets of
today this philosophy lacks breakthrough. It can be
thought of as going from point A to point T in one
innovative leap! This is where creativity tools can take
us. One thing lacking in the quality movement is the use
of creativity tools. If you review the quality toolbox,
the only creativity tool is brainstorming, which really
doesn't get us out of the box."
In addition to new tools to enhance innovation,
organizations need to distinguish between a culture of
innovation and a climate for creativity leading to
innovation. While culture may take decades to change,
climate can change almost instantly. According to
Zeisler, an organization's climate refers to "the
recurring patterns of behavior exhibited in the
day-to-day environment of the organization as
experienced, understood and interpreted by the
individuals within the organization." By creating a
climate for innovation we are, in a sense, creating
organizations that instead of squeezing the creativity
out of the organization, create mechanisms to suck it
The Nine Dimensions of a Creative
Research completed at Buffalo State University,
one of the few universities offering a master's degree in
creativity, uncovered nine dimensions in an
organization's climate that create a magnet for an
individual's creativity. The Buffalo State University
work is largely based on the original work of Dr. Goran
Ekvall, of the Swedish Council on Work Life Issues,
Stockholm. The research clearly demonstrates that
companies that consistently innovate have significant
differences in nine dimensions of climate than those with
a poorer track record of innovation (see below).
Zeisler is certified to use the Situational
Outlook Questionnaire (SOQ). The SOQ is a descriptive
tool that analyzes organizations according to the nine
dimensions. It does not make pronouncements or generate
solutions. It can help leaders better understand their
organization in light of their missions, strategies,
goals and objectives. In addition, the SOQ has been
validated against hard measures of organizational
innovation. Ekvall's original research examined the
relationship between people's perception of the
organizational climate and the organization's ability to
develop original products, solutions and marketing
approaches and to have these achieve commercial
originality and financial success.
Three key dimensions are idea support, freedom and
risk-taking. Idea support is the dimension that looks at
the way new ideas are treated. Freedom is the amount of
independence of behavior exerted by the people in the
organization, and risk-taking involves the tolerance of
uncertainty and ambiguity exposed in the workplace. These
three key dimensions, along with the other six, provide
an accurate "snapshot" of people's perception of the
working climate and can provide a useful comparison to
Once an SOQ is conducted, organizations must apply
the descriptive data to their own companies. "Take a
nuclear power plant for example. I am not sure I want my
fuel rod handlers to have the same degree of risk-taking
as my marketing people," laughs Zeisler.
"The SOQ is not a cookie-cutter approach to
creating a climate for innovation, since each climate is
"Most organizations," theorizes Zeisler, "have an
auto-immune system that attempts to kill anything that
might cause harm to the system. A new idea is going to be
suppressed. The challenge is to get the idea into an
incubator or greenhouse where it can grow."
Sit Behind the Wheel of an Audi A8 to Experience
And many companies have been able to do just that.
DuPont Europe's large-volume, polymer-manufacturing
facility used Zeisler's breakthrough thinking sessions.
The sessions allowed DuPont to overcome obstacles that
had confronted the facility for years. Within a month of
the sessions, run-life had increased by 33 percent and
utility loss was prevented, resulting in an immediate
capacity output improvement of nearly 10 percent. Three
months later, the plant reported a 20 percent energy
reduction per kilogram of product and 80 percent reduced
chemical waste production. These and other results led to
DuPont Europe receiving a prestigious global
In another instance, creativity tools that create
the proper climate for innovation busted the paradigm
that to make safer automobiles, they needed to be bigger
and heavier. Using some of these new creativity tools,
unique approaches were developed for an all-aluminum
automobile. As a result, Audi introduced its all-aluminum
luxury flagship, the A8. The Audi A8 employed a
revolutionary aluminum space frame body technology that
was 40 percent lighter than traditional steel
Impressive results-a direct result of
understanding the challenges an organization faces and
looking outside of the box. "Organizations need to be
able to surface the paradigms that define the work.
Paradigms are essential and we need them, but when they
become implicit and cannot be challenged, innovation
suffers," reminds Zeisler.
Far from being the management phrase du jour,
creativity and innovation are lying dormant in many of
our organizations. The challenge is to uncover and
utilize the creativity by creating a climate that
embraces the nine dimensions of an innovative climate.
Like all creativity endeavors, it takes courage from
leadership to face the risks, but the rewards can be
great. Living and thriving in an innovative climate might
well be a concept all of us should print on our sticky
The Situational Outlook Questionnaire analyzes the
nine dimensions of climate that enhance
Challenge/Involvement: The degree to which members of the
organization are involved in its daily operations and
Freedom: The independence in behavior exerted by the
people of the organization.
Trust/Openness: The emotional safety in
Idea Time: The amount of time people can use (and do use)
for elaborating new ideas.
Playfulness/Humor: The spontaneity and ease displayed
within the workplace.
Conflicts: The presence of personal and emotional
tensions in the organization. This is the only "negative"
dimension and can be contrasted with idea tensions
described in the dimension of debate.
Debates: The occurance of encounters and disagreements
between viewpoints, ideas and differing experiences of
Idea Support: The way new ideas are treated.
Risk-Taking: The tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity
in the workplace.