Thursday, March 29, 2012

Where to get ideas

Standing on the station platform, waiting for the Philadelphia train one night in the summer of 1902, Willis Carrier was about to have his 'eureka moment'.

As the fog rolled in across the track, he suddenly realised how he could fix the nascent air-cooling system he'd been working on, using water as a condensing surface.

This sudden moment of inspiration led to the invention of modern air-conditioning, a fortune for its inventor, and the foundation of a multi-billion dollar company.

The lone genius, beavering away in the seclusion of his lab, is how most of us imagine the great moments of innovation have come into being. But is this really the whole story?

Not entirely, according to author Steven Johnson. He believes Willis Carrier is very much the exception rather than the rule. He has written seven books on how science, technology and human experience interact, including the best-selling Everything Bad Is Good for You:How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.

"When you go back and you look at the history of innovation it turns out that so often there is this quiet collaborative process that goes on, either in people building on other peoples' ideas, but also in borrowing ideas, or tools or approaches.”

So what should companies be doing to foster innovation in their workforces? Mr Johnson argues that creativity is a continuous process.

"Part of the problem is that one day a year they have a corporate retreat and they all go into the country, and they do brainstorming sessions and trustfalls and then they go back to work.

"But equally you don't want to have a non-stop creative process where nothing gets done.

"Corporations have an opportunity to cultivate hunches and hobbies and the sideprojects of their employees because those are such great generators of ideas."

Google is one company that has famously capitalised on giving space for workers to innovate, with its 20% time system. Employees are required to allocate 20% of their time working on their own pet projects.

According to the company, about 50% of new features and products have resulted from it, including Adsense, Google Suggest and Orkut.

If you don’t work for Google but want to develop your creativity gene, Johnson has a number of suggestions.

"Go for a walk; pursue a number of hobbies (the one trait creative people such as Darwin) shared in common; cultivate hunches; write everything down; but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; frequent coffee houses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent."

So what brilliant suggestions do you have to develop your creative spark? And what are organisations out there doing to promote creativity and innovation?

Happiness is Good for the Bottom Line

Should we bring our emotions to work? I was asked this question by a finance manager when delivering a leadership programme recently. Part of my answer was to ask “Is it possible to leave them at the door on the way in?” We then went on to discuss a more fruitful question - how can we actually harness our emotions productively at work? 

At around the same time, I read a magazine where the whole issue was devoted to the emotion of happiness. What is surprising is the magazine was Harvard Business Review. Being happy at work makes people more productive and more creative, says the Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert.  New research suggests that happiness depends more on our day to day experiences – our routine interactions with colleagues, the projects we work on and our daily contributions - than on the stable conditions previously thought to promote happiness, such as high salary or a prestigious title.

My experience from coaching conversations with people at all levels has shown me that people become happier and more fulfilled when they:
  1. Build challenging yet achievable goals with clear and measurable targets – seeing progress towards a well-visualised desired improvement is one way my coaching clients build their self-confidence and become more innovative as well as fulfilled.
  2. Become more positive with themselves and those around them – one of my clients was quite startled when he compared the amount of poorly phrased, critical feedback he was giving himself versus the positive, carefully constructed feedback he gave others and so switched to giving himself higher quality, respectful, positive feedback
  3. Build strong networks where they can both give and receive support – using time away from the “task” to network can seem like a luxury but interestingly many clients who are strong networkers seem to embrace high workloads with less stress, often by getting more things done for them. 
I was very interested to see that the latest research supports this approach, reinforcing the positive link between a happy working environment and the bottom line.

Like it or not emotions exist regardless of whether we are at work or not. Some people are managed by their emotions; others try to bury them. Learning how to use emotions effectively is a skill that gets results and, the Harvard research shows, impacts on the bottom line. How much more effective could you and the people around you be if tackling your work in ways that result in happiness and fulfilment?

So are emotions appropriate in the workplace? Yes – and not just happiness. There are a number of emotions that effective leaders and managers should be developing proactively. One really powerful secret emotion stands out to me. I have seen used to great effect by those in the know..... but you’ll have to wait for my next article to find out more !