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Stimulating Creativity: 10 Key Levers Improve Innovation

By Dan Quinn

Ten key levers built into any project or process effort can dramatically improve results and create a culture of continuous improvement and creativity. Five of the levers are directed toward the individual and five toward the organization; together they can make a big difference in replacing bureaucracy with an entrepreneurial spirit of excitement, innovation and creative problem solving.

1. Involve Frontline Employees

Some of the best ideas for process improvement lie with the process owners. This is not a new concept, but it bears emphasizing. Frequently, the process owners are frontline people who do not have the chance to participate in improvement efforts. While they may not be formally trained in quality tools, their closeness to the process is a vantage point second to none. Every project or deployment needs to ask the question: “Who knows the process or subprocess best, and how are we assessing their unique knowledge and insight?”

Improvement efforts are often staffed by technical experts and mid- to senior-level managers. To avoid missing key opportunities that frontline people could identifyinstinctively, project leaders need to make participation broad and inclusive. This can be done in a variety of ways, including interviews and group brainstorming sessions, or through asking process owners to be on the team.

To be able to effectively elicit insights from a diverse array of down-the-line personnel, at a minimum, project leaders need facilitation skills training, coaching and practice.

2. Build Accountability into Projects

It is human nature to lay the blame for problems on something or someone else. But the fact is, virtually everyone wants to do a good job and is sufficiently skilled at what they do; where there are performance problems, the fault almost always can be found in the process, not the people.

Conducting root cause analysis that focuses not on who to blame, but rather on what has prevented the organization from achieving its target level of performance can help lead to an objective shared understanding. The key is to build action plans with specific individual accountability and commitments into every stage of a project. Not only does this engage a broader group in finding solutions, but people become more alert to identifying problems that are solvable.

3. Contribute to a Spirit of Play

When people are relaxed and having fun, the potential for creative insight is dramatically increased. The suite of process improvement tools draws heavily on the left side of the brain, the part that deals with logic and analysis. That leaves much of the human capacity for problem solving – the creative side – untapped.

Next-generation quality efforts need to create multiple contexts and environments where participants draw on the right side of their brains, where they move outside their comfort zones, and where they can relax and have fun.

Team leaders should have in their hip pockets a set of warm-up exercises, brain teasers and social events that contribute to a sense of play. Attention to a creativity-enhancing environment when setting up off-site meetings or designing workspaces can help, too. In broader deployments and longer projects in which building trust and teamwork is particularly critical, more elaborate events like ropes courses and other challenging team-building events can provide significant benefits for the project and in the day-to-day workplace.

4. Set Lofty Goals

Goals should not be manifestly impossible. But laying out aspirational goals with sufficient flexibility for attaining them can spur new thinking. Setting lofty goals can help avoid the trap of incremental improvement that blinds employees to questions like, “Do we need to do this at all?”

5. Uncover Change Champions and Future Leaders

Simple, straightforward questions can stimulate creative insight in surprising ways. Sometimes the most efficient route to innovative solutions is the most direct – for example, asking, “If you owned this company, what would you do?” A company wants its most thoughtful, bright, inquisitive and creative people – who are not necessarily the most technical – invested in addressing these kinds of questions.

6. Enable Cross-fertilization

Actively involving process and project leaders in an improvement effort will create cross-functional conversations and foster new connections. Not only can this interaction uncover creative ideas that might not be apparent in analysis alone, but it also invests the owners in the solution derived.

Part of any solution should include ongoing dialogue and coordinated responses through shared metrics and governance, regular joint problem-solving sessions and so on. These exchanges are invaluable. Improvement efforts should be viewed as enabling cross-fertilization in addition to simply solving a particular problem.

7. Speak the Same Language

Mandating uniformity in methodologies and terms would seem to be antithetical to creativity and innovation. In fact, the reverse is true. A proliferation of techniques and nomenclature is a formula for bogging down a deployment and stifling creativity.

It is important to have a set of tools that collectively can be drawn on to address diverse improvement opportunities. Yet allowing just any approach to be adopted, and allowing terms to be continually reinvented and loosely applied results in confusion and wasted effort. Part of the specialized expertise and guidance a centralized support group should provide is to ensure that methodologies are employed in a consistent way, tailored to the individual needs of the business but disciplined in their application.

Common approaches and a shared understanding focus the discussion. For a plan to be effective, it is important to minimize friction that is based not on substantive disagreement but on misunderstanding or competing methods. While seemingly constraining, commonality is in fact critical to freeing up people to concentrate on creative, collaborative solutions.

8. Break Down the Barriers

In general, what is done routinely does not stimulate creativity. Stirring the pot does – as in breaking down the constraints on lower-level workers interacting with senior managers. Just as accessing the ideas and experience of frontline people in cross-functional brainstorming can yield unexpected benefits, so, too, can involving frontline people in making recommendations to senior management.

Building in vertical connections and idea sharing can infuse energy and creativity into any project or deployment. But care needs to be taken to allow for adequate preparation so that everyone shines in these discussions, reinforcing the idea that innovation can (and should) come from every level.

9. Encourage Rapid Decision Making and Reward the Right Things

Thomas Edison tried 10,000 different approaches in the course of inventing a workable light bulb, saying, “I haven’t failed; I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” As that example so clearly illustrates, one feature of an innovative organization is its approach to failure. A second critical feature is a stepped-up pace with which approaches are tried, evaluated, and adopted or discarded. Rapid decisions and swift follow-through are essential to keeping an organization innovative.

Projects should be designed to include multiple go/no-go decision points. Methodologies should be selected (other considerations equal) with an eye toward delivering results quickly. Shots on goals may be as important in driving innovation as flashes of creative insight. For an organization to be innovative, the pace of internal change needs to at least slightly exceed the pace of external changes (evolution of market needs and competitive offerings).

Too often, though, innovation is unintentionally stifled by what leadership recognizes and rewards:

  • Innovation takes time, but firefighting is rewarded.
  • Innovation involves making mistakes, but being consistently right (and safe) is highly valued.
  • Innovation often requires collaboration and creative partnerships, but making the numbers and optimizing within a particular part of the business is often an exclusive priority.

To create an innovative organization, management has to be willing to reward the right things – and do it consistently.

10. Think of Projects and Initiatives in Terms of Strategic Priorities

One of the most seductive pitfalls is to become comfortable with doing projects that are in themselves attractive, without paying sufficient attention to overall optimization. It is common to find deployments filled with projects that have attractive returns on investment but do not move the needle on performance parameters that matter in the marketplace. In selecting projects and building a portfolio of improvement initiatives, clear linkage to strategic priorities needs to be established, not just at the outset but on an ongoing basis.

Creativity is not generally associated with defining the portfolio of projects; however, ongoing reevaluation can uncover opportunities for innovation. The sum or where time and attention is placed defines a company’s strategic direction.


Consciously considering each of these 10 key levers in any project can help stimulate creativity and serve as a catalyst for innovation. Taken as a whole, the elements build on each other. They have been proven to help businesses create a sustainable culture of creativity and continuous improvement.

About the Author:

Dan Quinn is the president and chief executive officer of Rath & Strong Management Consulting LLC, which has offices in the United States, Europe and Asia. Contact by visiting