Water. We all need water to stay alive. When we become dehydrated, our minds get fuzzy and our bodies collapse. Water is a fundamental component of life and we must continually take it to survive.
Creativity is like the water of innovation. A company cannot survive if it does not explore new ideas and without creativity, products become stale and collapsed. Creativity is fundamental to new product development (NPD) and we must continually supply it for a firm to stay in business.
But just as we take water in different forms to stay hydrated, we can use creativity in different ways to maintain and sustain innovation. First, we must understand the goals. Then, we must invest in the right tools. Next, we must make creativity and its companion – failure – acceptable within the culture. Finally, we can take the small steps to encourage creativity across organizational boundaries.
Goals for Creativity
Most firms clearly articulate the need for innovation to stay competitive and to meet a variety of strategic objectives. Business goals and objectives are typically identified in the strategic mission statement and visualized on the product roadmap. Yet, creativity is not a clearly identified goal in itself. However, without creativity, innovation and product development cannot thrive.
Management can inspire creativity by linking business goals with innovation objectives. This is easier than it sounds. Often our R&D and NPD teams gather for “brainstorming.” Brainstorming is one of several techniques that is useful for generating new ideas and concepts, but brainstorming can be largely ineffective if not applied in the right situation(s).
It is more important to choose the right problem to solve than the right technique. A lot of firms will automatically turn to brainstorming when other creativity tools can be used to find potential solutions to customer problems. The objective of the company is to sustain business growth which may require marketing for sales solutions in addition to product development. Brainstorming tends to focus on generating ideas around a single concept and many of these ideas never have any follow-up.
Instead, task your product development and engineering staff with a set of business goals. Striving to meet a specific goal can generate more creative solutions that are realistic and actionable.
For example, consider a product that has lately experienced lagging sales. Instead of jumping to a brainstorming session to generate ideas for added features, use the experience and expertise of your product management teams to better understand the sales data from the perspective of business goals.
- Are there new competitors in the market?
- What is your market share?
- Our customers once-through or repeat buyers?
- What fashion or geographical trends are impacting the sales?
Invest in Creativity Tools
Brainstorming is a great technique under certain circumstances, but it is not a cure-all for creativity. Companies must invest in a wide range of efforts to induce creativity. This includes a financial commitment, year-after-year, to basic R&D. Skills development in research cannot be advanced with annual budget fluctuations due to the interruptions in project progress. Creativity grows from a long-term investment in R&D and in building skills for NPD within staff and personnel dedicated to bringing new ideas to fruition.
Brainwriting is a structured group method to generate new ideas but is more focused on specific problems and goals than are general brainstorming sessions. This technique eliminates the wild and often chaotic atmosphere of a brainstorming event to bring forth more actionable ideas. Each individual will quietly inscribe three to five ideas on a sheet of paper. Because the problem statement has been circulated in advance, the ideas are immediately forthcoming. The paper is passed to the next person who builds on these ideas. Or they may record a new idea. After a few rounds, the paper returns to the originator who reviews and selects the best idea. The team then notes the “best” concepts from this compilation of ideas. These “best” ideas are recorded as in a traditional brainstorming session.
Another technique that works well to generate creative product concepts is built on the customer’s problem, or “job-to-be-done”. The NPD team should actually use the product as it was designed in the same situations that a customer might use it. Product use (and role-playing if that’s not possible) helps to identify real pain points from the customer’s viewpoint – areas that are ripe for innovative solutions.
We’ve all heard Thomas Edison’s famous quote of not having found the right invention but instead having found 10,000 ways not to do it. Failure is a part of the creative process and companies must learn to accept some failures on the pathway to success. This is precisely why athletes practice and practice. When they encounter the real-life conflict in a game, they know what worked and what did not.
While failure is a part of the creative process, there are limits to acceptable failures. Companies should not tolerate new product development without corresponding customer research. Product designs should not be created in a vacuum without consumer input. Marketing campaigns should be tested with a subset of the target audience. The NPD process is devised to engender fast and smart failures, leading to knowledge that increases the success rates of new products.
Creativity Across Organizational Boundaries
Creativity for new products and services is not limited to named R&D staff or those personnel assigned to the product development organization. Seek creativity across organizational boundaries to increase idea generation, manufacturability, and sales and marketing of products that meet customer needs and wants. Workers on the factory floor should be empowered to add value by saving costs or increasing productivity. Sales teams often have the most contact with customers and know their needs best. Every NPD effort must be staffed by a cross-functional team that can look across organizational boundaries to build better, smarter, faster products and services to solve customer problems.
The traditional “suggestion box” might be accompanied by incentives and rewards, linking exceptional ideas to the corporate business goals. Every suggestion, however, must be acknowledged with a heartfelt “thank you” and how the suggestion will (or will not) be implemented. Suggestions that aren’t timely or do not have enough cost impact must be acknowledged, rewarded, and encouraged. Small steps can eventually cover great distances, especially when taken together.
We have to support our bodies and minds by staying hydrated as water supports all the life-giving mechanisms. Similarly, creativity supports all the business-sustaining systems for growth and productivity. We set goals for daily water consumption – my fitness app recommends 64 ounces of water per day. I have invested in tools to help me achieve that objective – refillable water bottles for my bicycle, for instance, and an insulated thermos for the car. Sometimes I fail to meet my hydration goal – sometimes by a few ounces and other times by a lot. But I can accept that failure and try again tomorrow. Finally, I have enlisted help across my institutions – each evening, my husband brings me a fresh bottle of water while I watch television or read. Staying hydrated helps me achieve so many other goals.
Likewise, senior executives today recognize more than ever that that innovation is key to long-term success. Inspiring creativity is not easy, yet most employees feel empowered and more engaged in their work when they seek creative solutions to address real-world problems. Just as I’ve taken simple steps to increase hydration in my daily life, firms can take some simple steps to enhance creativity in their organizations.
- Link innovation to specific business goals.
- Invest in effective innovation tools.
- Accept failures on the pathway to creativity.
- Take small steps to generate big results.
Creativity is part of being a successful new product development professional (NPDP). Learn more about NPDP certifications here.
Read about more creativity tools in my recent article in Chemical Engineering Progress (published by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers) here.
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