How do you gestate a hunch? Toward a more innovative culture

Many companies aim to generate their next big innovation ideas at a brainstorm, offsite, or working session full of inspirational stimulus, energetic facilitators, and colorful toys. They conscientiously set time aside on a quarterly or annual basis to spark innovative thinking and inspire employees outside of their everyday working environments.

Sessions like this can certainly have value when done right - but the most innovative companies we see today know that ideas are often born out of random unplanned interactions, collisions of thoughts, half-articulated complaints, and disparate notions that suddenly combine in the back of the brain to become something new. So, these companies deliberately create environments where ‘business as usual’ always has an element of the unusual, introducing grains of sand into day-to-day ways of working that will trigger innovative thinking pearls. In the words of Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, they are "creating an environment where a hunch can gestate".

At April’s PSFK Live, Work, Play Better Conference, we heard a number of examples of innovative companies putting this into practice:


    • Adopting workspaces that mix up teams and even companies: James O’Reilly from private workspace collective Neuehouse suggested that "where you work can be a strategic advantage." Collaborative workspaces and co-working spaces, where people from different teams or companies work alongside each other, provide environments that nurture community, collaboration, and cross-pollination of ideas. This was famously part of the vision for Pixar’s and Google’s offices. Other established companies are now encouraging their employees to make use of rentable co-working spaces that facilitate idea-sparking interactions with freelancers and startups.
    • Digital detoxing: Sascha Lewis, the co-founder & CEO of Flavorpill Media, talked about the "ROI on being more present" in a world of constant digital distraction. At Flavorpill, employees take a "15 minute digital detox" every day to meditate as a group. "We basically get out of our heads and away from our screens — and get into our bodies. We’re immediately struck by how much energy we have, or how calmed or focused we are following that."
  • Encouraging daily disagreement: "When I’m in a meeting and no one’s disagreeing, I get very, very scared," said Daniel Lubetzky, founder and CEO of KIND Healthy Snacks (makers of the fastest-growing nutrition bar in the US). Many company cultures dodge potentially uncomfortable conflicts by gravitating to consensus, or deferring to senior leaders’ authority. But KIND encourages people to "stand up and disagree" every day, particularly younger employees with the "most fresh and disruptive perspectives". In an environment where no concerns or conflicting ideas remain unspoken, good ideas get stronger and bad ideas are shut down more quickly.
  • Giving people a sense of control – even if they don’t do anything with it: Sara Schiller from MEET, a company that produces meetings in creative, unique and inspiring spaces, said that MEET provides meeting participants with iPads which allow full control of the entire environment (video, audio, heat, etc.) Participants are incredibly enthusiastic about having these controllers (though they rarely actually use them) – they establish a sense of agency and autonomy that transfers to behavior and ideas in the meeting. Autonomy is correlated with happiness and creativity and is a key part of the working culture of highly innovative companies – for example, Zappos employees can do whatever they want, as long as they 'wow' the customer.

In our work with clients across industries we’ve found that what makes the biggest difference to their innovation track record is their innovation culture. Brand Learning helps companies embed long-term change into their culture by lifting skills, people, processes, and organizations using our learning for performance approach. 

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If you’d like to hear more about the work we do in lifting innovation capabilities or changing cultures please contact us. You may also be interested in these articles and resources.

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