Free Your Mind – A Chat with Innovation-Guru Chic Thompson

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 destroy.”

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.

For 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.

Let’s 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 .

Then, 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.

Creative 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 probabilities.

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.

After 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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