Free Your Mind

StartupNation sat down with innovation guru Chic Thompson to gather his thoughts on creating a culture of innovation and creativity for a business.

Charles “Chic” Thompson often talks with companies about tips for
coming up with innovative products to sell in today’s market. Thompson
is the founding partner of the Creative Management Group and a fellow
at the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School. He’s worked in
product development for W.L. Gore and Associates, Johnson &
Johnson, and Walt Disney. His book What a Great Idea! (Perennial/HarperCollins, 1992, $15) was a main selection of the Executive Book Club. What a Great Idea! 2.0
(Sterling, $14.95) will be released in early 2007. Thompson sat down
with StartupNation to talk about how new businesses can foster a
culture of innovation.

How do you define innovation?

Thompson: I
look at the word differently than most. I don’t consider innovation to
be just the generation of ideas. I believe ideas are the currency of a
business’s future. For a business to grow, it has to have a culture of
actionable ideas. Therefore, innovation, by definition, is turning
those ideas into action. It also means eliminating ideas that you know
are going to never work and inefficient processes, like unnecessary
reports, approvals and meetings. Innovation is both “create and

What makes a product or service innovative?

Thompson: Most people think innovation is about meeting a customer need. I believe innovation is about eliminating a customer sacrifice.

example, let’s look at health care in America. The number one customer
sacrifice is waiting — waiting to get appointments, waiting in the
lobby. Along comes a company called The Minute Clinic, which was
recently bought by CVS Pharmacies. Their slogan is “You’re sick – We’re
quick.” No appointment necessary. Walk into the clinic, housed
conveniently at the CVS drugstore, and within 15 minutes you’ll see a
nurse-practitioner. This is breaking the mold of the traditional
healthcare model. How? By eliminating a customer sacrifice.

look at another example in the airline industry. What’s one of the main
customer sacrifices? Lost and slow luggage. United Airlines knew it had
to get better and quicker with luggage handling. If they could take 5
minutes off the flight turnaround by quicker baggage handling, they
could put 100 more flights in the air every day. What was their
innovative idea? They sent their baggage handlers to NASCAR pit-crew
training, which is all about speed and quality. They were able to add
more flights with no additional costs.

Businesses need
to identify customer sacrifices and then overcome them. If they do
that, they end up exceeded expectations. A good thing.

How can a startup build a culture of innovation?

Thompson: Start
with the end in mind. Define your mission or your new product
development by asking three questions: What is the result we want to
achieve? Be specific . Why do we want to achieve this? Be passionate . How are we going to achieve it? Be bold .

to create that innovative culture, visualize it. Have pictures of your
vision – not just words on a plaque. Words only tie into left side of
brain. You can get the right side of your brain – the creative side –
engaged by using visuals. Stimuli on the walls are just as important as
procedural manuals. Creative environments have more things on the
walls. What I find humorous but sad is when you go to those companies
five years later and their offices look like someone’s formal living
room. I think offices should look more like kitchens than living rooms.
People are more comfortable in kitchens –.there’s stuff hanging on the
refrigerator, different lighting and good smells – there are altogether
more stimuli.

I strongly suggest that leaders situate
their offices near to where the ideas are. The person who heads up
innovation at Google has her office right next to the cafeteria/vending
machine area. When engineers come to get a drink and have conversations
with others to help them build on ideas, she’s right there. Most
leaders say, “Come to my office when you have an idea.” I think they
have it backwards. I’m not saying go build another building. But look
at the flow of energies and ideas in your company. To maintain an
innovation culture, you need to be there.

cultures have guidelines that are the exact opposite of elementary
school, where there was one right answer, the teacher had it and it was
in the back of the book. I find that in some startups, strong
personalities take on the role of the teacher –. but this won’t foster
creative employees. Creative employees are in it for the idea. They’re
not in it just for the money. Look at them as de facto volunteers. Give
them time to daydream, mentors, flex time – not just stock options. If
they don’t get those intrinsic rewards from their work, they’ll move
on, no matter what their salary is.

What can individuals do to be creative leaders?

Thompson: Use
the language of improvisation, which is “Yes … and,” then build on the
possibilities. Then and only then can you come out and say, “Yes … but…
.” Too many companies start out with the “Yes … but,” which just
squashes innovation. First see the possibilities, then calculate the

Ask a lot of questions. Take a page from
manufacturing, which uses the “5 whys” to get to the root cause of a
problem. The typical 5-year-old asks 65 questions a day. The typical
44-year-old asks only six. Make an effort to ask at least 20 questions
a day, and one of those questions should be, “What went right?” By
looking at a problem from the opposite perspective you gain more
insight into customer situation.

Einstein said the
average person, when looking for the needle in the haystack, stops when
they find the needle. The creative person keeps looking for anything
that acts like a needle. Most people stop too soon when brainstorming.
Push for those second and third right answers – that’s when you start to get creative.

you’ve come up with all your answers, take five more minutes and ask
yourself, “What would we never to do to solve this problem?” When asked
what one product they would never add a potpourri scent to,
the folks at S.E. Johnson Wax answered, “Raid.” Their “outdoor fresh
Raid” turned out to be one of their bestsellers. People had always
wanted an insecticide that smelled good. They eliminated a customer
sacrifice. Flipping the “nevers” into an opportunity is a key trait of
the creative mind.

Perhaps one the easiest ways to
free your mind when you’re feeling stuck is to put on a full-face,
eye-bulging smile. Do it at least six times a day. If you need a
trigger, put your watch on the opposite arm, and every time you look at
the wrong arm – smile. This exercise loosens up your brain, which can’t
tell the difference between a fake and a real smile. It balances both
sides of the brain and creates endorphins, which will help you see
positive and creative possibilities.
Jackie Headapohl is a freelance writer for StartupNation.

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