Creating the ideal environment for innovative ideas to thrive

syl saller

I railed – politely for an American – in my last column against the evils of too much innovation process, an over-reliance on research, and a reluctance to experiment. So if that’s the list of traits to avoid, what should companies seeking to foster brilliant innovation focus on? Top of my list is developing talent and creating an environment where people can flourish.

Let’s start with talent. There’s no template for an “innovative person”. I don’t seek out a certain personality type, background or funky haircut. What’s critical here is to find what genius people possess within themselves and then stretch them to their limits so they grow as fast as possible.

Finding top talent is only one part of a senior leader’s job, however. The other part of that role is creating the right conditions in which people can flourish. Having a diverse team myself, I wondered – are there some overarching themes about what helps people create magic?

Rather than simply giving you my view, I made a quick call to some of our North American team members at Diageo: Michael Ward, Scott Schilling, Jesse Damashek and Jeff Fink. I asked them one simple question: “What helps you do your best work?”

Key themes

Three primary themes bubbled up, none of which should surprise anyone but all of

which are critical for any company seeking to create great innovation: freedom, trust and support.

Freedom – the loftiest of words – does not mean saying yes to everything. Whoever said there was no such thing as a bad idea was lying. There are a lot of bad ideas and shutting them down is never a problem. The issue most companies face is confusing a bad idea with an idea that makes people uncomfortable – ideas that challenge entrenched paradigms. Those are the ideas that need to be kept alive.

Jeff Fink explains: “We come to Michael Ward with ridiculous ideas all the time. He’ll turn to us and say, ‘You guys are completely insane… but let’s check it out.’ A lot of times Michael is right – we are insane. But by keeping the avenues of exploration open, it allows us to stumble upon those few truly stunning ideas.”

Making sure innovators have the freedom to dream big, and trusting that what may look like insanity may be the early stages of brilliance is critical for any company that wants innovation that will leapfrog the competition.

So how do we sort the wheat from the chaff? That’s where trust is critical. Our internal innovation sessions often lack the decorum of a typical business meeting. I’m no soothsayer. That’s why it’s critical that innovators feel empowered to fight for the ideas they have a passion for, regardless of who is at the table. I’m not polite and I don’t expect my team to be polite either. When trust is there, people will fight for the good stuff – and when I see the fire in their eyes, I know they’re onto something.

Of course, a great idea is worthless if it’s killed before it gets to market. It’s critical that the people leading innovation teach their teams to navigate their ideas through the system, and when required, support them. Scott Schilling has a favourite quote from the film director David Fincher: “If eleven people can agree about something, it’s not worth doing.” Attaining consensus often means watering down a great idea. Senior leaders must create oxygen for the ideas we think will create growth and stand up for them.

To take an example from our own business, it required all these three areas to develop and launch Captain Morgan Black Spiced. The idea from the team was that line extensions don’t need to be a straight lift from the original core brand. This concept was always destined to ruffle some feathers in an organisation that has spent years of collective wisdom deciding on how Captain Morgan should be brought to life.

The innovation team was insistent upon starting from scratch and developing something we would be proud of in 20 years’ time. This attitude affected every aspect of the project. Packaging work strayed into territories we had never before considered. And after failing to create a game-changing liquid, the research and development team tore up the brief and went rogue.

At one point, the project was threatened with a complete shutdown by the global brand team who were doing their job correctly – protecting their trademark from what seemed like a departure from the usual Captain brand. But senior leaders waded in and kept it moving.

The result is a product that is not a standard line extension but it still fits within the Captain brand. Developing it took freedom, trust and support in action.

Thriving culture

Fifty years from now, consultants and corporations will still be debating the best processes for innovative companies. I’ve stopped chasing that white rabbit. Do we have the right people? Are we growing them as fast as we can? Have we done everything possible to create a culture in which they can thrive?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then just get on with the work. Brilliance often resides in the land of the crazies, but if you try to corral those folks with process – you’re the one who’s nuts.

Syl Saller is global innovation director at Diageo


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