John C. Maxwell: How to Create a Culture of Innovation

You can develop a work environment that nurtures creativity
September 10, 2014

A few YEARS AGO an Argentinian mechanic named Jorge Odón saw a YouTube video showing how to extract a cork from inside a wine bottle by inserting a plastic bag, inflating it so it surrounds the cork and then pulling it out. He and a friend tried it out over dinner. It worked!

For most of us that parlor trick would be good for a few chuckles. But Odón woke the next day to a lightbulb moment. He theorized that the same method for extracting wine corks could be applied to delivering difficult babies. Odón developed a prototype and shared it with an obstetrician who encouraged him to pursue research and development. Today the Odón Device is hailed as the most revolutionary development in obstetrics in the last century—a low-cost lifesaver in developing countries and a means of reducing Caesarean births in developed ones.

Related: 15 Trust-Building Practices for Leaders

The story is a reminder of the importance of innovation. If a mechanic with no medical background can transform obstetrics, then each of us is capable of changing the world in some way. As leaders we can encourage our teams to find their inner “Odóns” by establishing an environment that values and rewards innovation.

Let’s consider how to challenge the status quo, create a culture of creativity and develop a workplace that’s nimble and adaptable to change.

To create a culture of innovation...

Model it.

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,” Steve Jobs said. He’s right. Leaders must act on opportunities quickly and decisively. Their decisions must reflect where their businesses are going, not where they are today. If you want to see creativity in your team, you need to demonstrate a forward-thinking mindset.

Encourage positive failure.

Failure is a critical part of success. My best ideas are rarely my new ones, and my first attempts at anything important are usually miserable. But that doesn’t stop me from trying. My success has been the result of many spoiled attempts that eventually resulted in triumph. Praise creative problem-solving even when the end result isn’t quite what you’d hoped.

Embrace option-thinking.

Creative people are comfortable with change and risk. Great ideas are born from uncertainty. I mean, look at Odón. His own wife at first told him he was crazy! But innovators like Odón look for options, no matter how off-the-wall. Those are the people I want on my team.

Insist on solution-thinking.

Almost nothing bothers me more than a person who complains without thinking up a solution. I trained my people long ago to bring three solutions for every problem they identify. This not only minimized the issues that came across my desk, but it also gave my team members ownership over challenges.

Harness the power of fresh perspectives.

One of the best ways to remain innovative and flexible is to make the most of new team members’ perspectives. Keep fresh eyes around you and listen closely to their observations. You may be surprised by how much they bring to the table.

Celebrate good ideas.

I often say that a great idea is simply the combination of many good ideas. That takes the burden off any individual to have the “perfect” proposal. Celebrate good ideas, acknowledge the people who bring them forward, and you’ll find yourself with a never-ending supply of leading-edge suggestions.

***

When I learned about Jorge Odón, I discovered that his birthing device was not his first invention—he already had eight mechanical patents. He told interviewers that he frequently wakes up with solutions to the problems he had on his mind when he went to bed.

“Capital isn’t so important in business,” American industrialist Harvey Firestone said. “Experience isn’t so important…. What is important is ideas. If you have ideas, you have the main asset you need, and there isn’t any limit to what you can do with your business and your life.”

If you don’t have a “thinking team” in your organization, now might be the time to consider recruiting one. If this hasn’t been an area of focus for you, I have good news: Innovative thinking is a skill that can be learned and developed. I am confident that when you invest in great people and great ideas, these lightbulb moments will become a regular and profitable part of your business!

Related: Rohn: The Biggest Challenge You'll Face as a Leader

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