ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Issue Highlight — A Sign Of Hope
- Peter Block addresses the importance for corporations to work in the public interest as well as the interest of shareholders, building strong communities and promoting social equity.


Online Edition - November/December 2000

 In This Issue...
Tackling Leadership
Generation X And The Baby Boomers At Work
Heeding The Call
A Sticky Situation: Creating Innovative Climates

Motivation Made Easy

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Heard on the Street

Return to NFC Index

A Sticky Situation: Creating Innovative Climates
Assessment Tool Helps Organizations Understand Creativity and Innovation

   Many of us are so inundated with paperwork that we forget about one of our brain's most powerful tools-creativity.
  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 rewarded.

  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 organization's creativity."

  "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 creativity.

  "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 back in.

The Nine Dimensions of a Creative Climate

  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 other organizations.

  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 unique."

  "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 Innovation First-Hand

  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 environmental award.

  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 frames.

  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 notes.

The Situational Outlook Questionnaire analyzes the nine dimensions of climate that enhance innovation:

1. Challenge/Involvement: The degree to which members of the organization are involved in its daily operations and long-term goals.

2. Freedom: The independence in behavior exerted by the people of the organization.

3. Trust/Openness: The emotional safety in relationships.

4. Idea Time: The amount of time people can use (and do use) for elaborating new ideas.

5. Playfulness/Humor: The spontaneity and ease displayed within the workplace.

6. 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.

7. Debates: The occurance of encounters and disagreements between viewpoints, ideas and differing experiences of knowledge.

8. Idea Support: The way new ideas are treated.

9. Risk-Taking: The tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity in the workplace.

November-December 2000 Homepage

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