Forget perfection: accept failure, move quickly and combine unlikely bedfellows.
By Ken Mungan, Chairman of the Board, Milliman
Our approach means everyone, from top to bottom, can innovate.
Talk about failure
A fear of failure is toxic. It makes staff reluctant to try new things. The solution? Get failure out in the open. Grant Thornton’s CFO John Harmerling explains: “When we get our top people on the phone we have a brief window to discuss things that really matter. And every time we block out ten to fifteen minutes to discuss failure. A volunteer will explain how they failed at something. Ideally they should really have gone down in flames.” He adds: “We focus on failure because we want to innovate—and you can’t have one without the other.”
Create a skunk works
To liberate staff from normal constraints create a ‘skunk works’. The original Skunk Works was founded by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. Its radical design arm was secretive, well-funded, and licensed to experiment with left-field ideas—and came up with the Blackbird supersonic aircraft and the F-22 Raptor fighter plane. Today many ambitious innovators run a skunk works, including McLaren Formula 1 team. The McLaren Advanced Technologies works with partners from GSK’s toothpaste division through to Specialized Bicycles on unique products. The skunk works formula can work in any industry.
Hire an ideas consultant
Yes, they exist. Yes, they can work. An ideas consultant will hold tutorials in ways to be creative. For example, Paul Sloane presents to the likes of Vodafone and ARM, where he explains lateral thinking methods. Sloane recommends combining two utterly different concepts to arrive somewhere new, such as wheeled luggage: invented in 1970 by combining luggage with wheels to ease transportation. (Sounds simple, right? Yet this invention was made almost 6,000 years after the wheel was first invented. And after we first put a man on the moon!) Or hold a brainstorm session in which the goal is to produce the worst possible ideas. Sloane reveals unusual ways to explore problems collaboratively such as the Fishbone, Lotus, and the Six Serving Men. Sessions like this can radically enhance the creativity of a department.
That’s Agile with a capital ‘A’. The Agile methodology abandons detailed plans in favor of quick launches, followed by rapid iterations based on customer feedback. The original Agile Manifesto was written by 17 software developers in 2001. It stresses speed of launch over perfection. Plans can be changed on the fly. Companies like Net-a-Porter.com live by the Agile philosophy. Hugh Fahy, the CTO who built Net-a-Porter into a retail colossus, comments: “Agile is at the heart of everything we do…We try to recreate the spirit of a start-up. Short, snappy, iterative styles means you’ll get something your customer wants.”
There’s a world of brilliant people out there just chomping at the bit to help you. Just ask! Need a fresh design? Try a crowdsourcing platform like Fiverr or Designcrowd. Creatives will compete to fulfil the brief. Take your pick from the best. Multinationals such as Samsung and Unilever use Eyeka.com to harness the might of the masses. More than 320,000 creatives use the Eyeka, solving problems for cash prizes. Unilever’s latest commission offers £5,000 to “design a premium cleaning product or tool that makes cleaning chores a breeze, or even an indulging experience”. Your own users may be the best creatives. Mobile network GiffGaff relies on its community of users to generate ideas. More than 9,000 ideas have been generated by the community, with 270 making it to market. Even the marketing is outsourced. GiffGaff users created 146 videos to date, generating around half a million views online.
Nurture innovation across the enterprise
To infuse a culture of creativity throughout your organization be explicit about expectations. I spend a lot of time explaining to staff that we expect them to remain curious and questioning, and to regularly look beyond what is, to what might be. At Milliman we see this as normal. These values are backed up by our education program: texts such as Jay Ray and Joseph Weintraub’s How Innovative Is Your Company’s Culture are read by our staff, while books such as Amy Wilkinson’s The Creator’s Code are discussed in open sessions. Our managers accept occasional failures and set-backs. To create something that is both new and practical requires us to step into the unknown, so inevitably things won’t always go the way we hope. Our approach is proven to foster creativity across the enterprise: in every firm there is a small number of gifted innovators who’ll thrive no matter what. Our approach means everyone, from top to bottom, can innovate.