Permission granted

Want to innovate at speed? Give your people room to run

Dee Anna Smith freely admits the organization she leads has a bit of a head start when it comes to innovation. After all, Sarah Cannon Research Institute has handled more than 100 first-in-man clinical trials for pharmaceuticals and medical devices over the past two decades and has built a network of more than 700 pioneering physicians.

But Smith, who has been CEO of Sarah Cannon since mid-2006, isn’t content to let that track record be the end of the company’s approach to innovation. She is intensely focused on making sure Sarah Cannon employees know that they are empowered to do what it takes to keep doing things better — be that “from the top down, from the bottom up or via the side door in.”

“People can get confused about overcontrolling their organizations,” says Smith, who launched her professional career as an auditor at KMPG. “But innovation is about allowing everyone their time and tolerating their voice. People can raise their hands and say, ‘Guys, we can do that better.’”

The concept of innovation has become a rallying point for thousands of pundits and millions of businesses around the country. At just about every corner of the business world stands an executive, a consultant or an author proclaiming that American companies absolutely must lean on their creativity to lead the world through the 21st century, that the latest up-and-coming, bright-eyed talent shaking up a stodgy sector of the economy is the model to be followed by all.

But getting innovation to take root across a broad organization requires hard work and intentional and prolonged facilitation. And lionizing a leader such as the late Steve Jobs will most often lead to a fruitless search for the next iteration of the omniscient visionary. Skip Prichard, the former CEO of Ingram Content Group, says it also creates the distorted view that a single person is responsible for a company’s innovative streak. The people who refine an idea, develop it and implement it in the marketplace are hugely important to the process. Just as a company’s culture needs a broad base to thrive, so effective innovation calls for a true team effort.

“Ask your leaders to facilitate the environment you want,” says Tim McMullen, founder and principal of West End-based marketing agency redpepper. “They need to explain why the environment is important and what they hope to achieve with it. You want to define the environment. We regularly say to each other that even Picasso had a canvas.”

 
Alone time refined

Writing late last year on the Harvard Business Review Network, the leaders of a fast-growing Utah software company said leaders looking to let their employees’ innovative instincts flourish — as opposed to being repressed by fear of getting it wrong — must get three things right. David Williams and Mary Michelle Scott wrote that the bosses must truly trust their people, rely on principles rather than policies and let their team members experiment before creating.

Only then, Williams and Scott said, can workers “feel sufficiently secure to devote their full energy, creativity and passion to the company and its goals. They will naturally innovate in every area within their influence.”

Tech giant Google long ago made its name as a talent magnet with its “20 Percent Time” concept, which lets employees devote a day’s worth of their time every week to work on product and service concepts outside their normal job scope. The idea is to unleash creativity and help launch new business lines for the mothership.

The redpepper team has adapted that concept into a process that is both broader and more focused on channeling ideas through a development process. Rather than take their 20 percent of creative time whenever it works them, the firm’s employees each Friday clear their desks of day-to-day work as much as possible and stretch their creative muscles during Lab Day. They gather around ideas that have bubbled up over the course of the week to see what might be related and worth pursuing.

“The Google 20 percent approach wasn’t as inclusive or as fast as it could be,” says Dave McMullen, Tim’s brother and one of the partners of redpepper. “We wanted to give people the power to be creative but be intentional about how they use the time. The process is taking our skill sets and creating something with total freedom.”

Some of the results of lab days have brought redpepper massive amounts of exposure — 60 Minutes last month featured the company’s Facedeals concept linking facial recognition software with shopping offers and Red Bull invited the firm to take part in its third Innovation Competition — while others have served “merely” as a creative exercise that may or may not be of use in the future.

But the lab concept, which was launched in earnest at the beginning of this year after testing and refining, speaks to some core points of marketing today. It helps to answer questions about how redpepper team members and their clients might go about reaching consumers in an increasingly noisy, cluttered and social communications arena. And it helps clients unlock the creativity in their organizations.

“A big part of what we do when we bring clients in here is to show them that they, too, can be creative,” Tim McMullen says. “Once they see that, we are asked to further help them, to enable them to innovate inside their organizations.”

 
Keep pushing

Just as individuals can be held back from taking innovative risks by fear over their job status, so can whole organizations fall victim to sticking militantly to “the plan,” says Tim McMullen. But with products and services evolving so much more quickly, it’s imperative to keep up. He regularly tells companies that 25 percent of the spending that any business earmarks to improve itself should go toward evolving into something new.

“Companies have to be willing to let go of more stuff faster,” he says. “You just can’t afford not to do it. You haven’t missed the boat because the next boats are constantly coming.”

And just as with other aspects of company culture, taking a chance on those boats has to come from the top. An organization’s leader must consistently set the tone.

At Sarah Cannon, Smith knows she can’t directly or regularly reach every single person on her large team. Laying the foundation for institutionalized innovation starts with hiring passionate talent, she says, and then counting on the concept of “Each one, teach one.” And that starts with her.

“The big question I ask myself is, ‘How do I affect my people?’” Smith says. “I have to hold that flag in almost every meeting we have. We’ve built the foundation. Now we reinforce that, we release people to be creative and we reward ideas — even if there’s no success.”