Zen and the art of improving ROI from creativity

Zen and the art of improving ROI from creativity
Every business has some kind of competition, and technology and globalization have heightened this. Someone somewhere is grinding away to make a product just like yours, only less expensive, better-looking, and faster. What can you do to keep one step ahead?

One answer is innovation. In the 2014 Fast Company release on The World’s Most Innovative Companies each of the companies listed (Google, Airbnb, Nike, Twitter, Apple and others) is quite profitable and is arguably number one in its category.

So how do you make your company more innovative? Enabling your employees to be creative is one way to get you on the road. Not surprisingly, according to Gallup, engaged employees are more likely to be a company's best source of new ideas.  

You might think that creativity is an inborn trait, either you have it or you don’t. That might be true, but without an environment that is conducive to creativity you should not expect to create a company or product that is innovative. Work to foster a culture in which people are comfortable challenging existing practice and voicing new ideas.

How to make your work environment more engaging and open to creative thought:  

1) Reward creativity

On top of everything else that your team is responsible for, thinking outside the box requires energy and brainpower.

Ensure that there is a reward associated with the creative idea. I’ve learned from gamification and loyalty that recognition, status, or working for a purpose can be just as powerful as a monetary incentive – and often even more rewarding.

2) Execute creativity

Rewarding creativity can be demotivating if the ideas brought to the table are never implemented. What’s the point if there is no fruition, or even an attempt to go through the full creative process? People will begin to see it as a waste of time. If it’s an improvement to an existing process, give it a try. If it’s an enhancement to a product, scope it out and add it to the roadmap. When an idea isn’t going to be used, give feedback so the contributor understands they are not being dismissed. You want people to feel inspired and encouraged so the creativity continues.

3) Maintain records

Keep a record of successfully executed past innovations, along with failures. This is a good benchmark to learn from and another way to support and promote the newer ideas.

4) Support creativity

Creativity can make people vulnerable. If your workplace doesn’t exhibit a positive atmosphere or explicitly support creativity, your people will be unwilling to take risks, fearful of the repercussions if they make a mistake. Fostering an innovative culture takes time and demands that that management is open-minded and non-judgmental.

Some things you can do to help:

- Organize brainstorm sessions and make them safe
- Set up task forces in which teams are cross-departmental and diverse
- Give your team regular opportunities to bounce ideas off each other
- Set up company lunch-and-learns where your team can share skills, talents, and so on. They'll likely learn something new about-each other, potentially forming new relationships and promoting more out-of-the-box thinking and collaboration.

5) Establish creative time

If possible, give your team time to work on a personal creative project that promotes curiosity and innovation. Google has reaped incredible innovation from its ‘20%’ initiative (where employees get 20% time to spend on side projects) – it contributed to the development of Gmail. Other well-known companies such as LinkedIn and Facebook have followed suit.

What happens without innovation?

Innovation is like evolution. If you fail to adapt you face extinction. If a company keeps offering the same product, a competitor can easily surpass it with a less expensive, better-looking, and faster product. Creativity helps fuel innovation and can give your company a competitive advantage. More creative work environments harbour more engaged employees. Without creativity, you’re doomed to compete in commodity hell.

Ben Ridler is the founder and CEO of Results.com, the Auckland- and San Francisco-based software-as-a-service firm. Results.com was named top start-up in the 2014 TiE50 Awards Programme, which recognizes the 50 hottest tech start-ups globally.