Between January of 1998 and April of 1999, fifteen
professionals from across the U.S., as well as from Canada and the U.K., came
together to form the second class of the Innovation University Best Practices
Fellowship. During five sessions,
each in a different city, we visited or heard presentations from roughly 20 of
the most innovative organizations in the world.
This extraordinary opportunity to visit organizations such as Dell
Computer, GSD&M, Nortel, Manco, Roberts Express, and Cirque du Soleil
provided us with a wide variety of tremendous learning experiences.
In this article, I will briefly outline some key lessons the Innovation
University Fellows took away from the program.
Perhaps the most striking lesson we learned was just how
much these disparate organizations had in common. Virtually every one of the organizations we visited displayed
nine shared characteristics:
Strong, clearly expressed SHARED VALUES
An appreciation of/for the WHOLE INDIVIDUAL and everything s/he can bring
to the organization
Cultures that encourage OPENNESS and PLAYFULNESS
CELEBRATE SUCCESSES constantly
A strong, clearly communicated sense of HISTORY
Intense CUSTOMER FOCUS
Clear focus on TRENDS, even those that do not seem to directly effect
The first common thread among the organizations we
experienced was shared values. In
every case, the organization went to great lengths to constantly express,
reinforce , and build these values into its culture.
In every case, it was clear that members of the organization made real
efforts to live those values – they were not simply a plaque on a wall.
GSD&M, an advertising agency in Austin, provided the best example of
this. After going through an
extensive values clarification process, they literally carved their core values
in stone in the floor of the rotunda of their new offices.
Appreciate the Whole Individual
Every organization we visited demonstrated a clear
understanding of the value each person brings to that organization and went to
great lengths to encourage people to incorporate things from their
“personal” lives into the professional setting.
American Greetings encourages its workers to decorate their cubicles with
personal artwork, whether it is directly related to work projects or not.
New designs and art concepts have frequently resulted.
At the Smithsonian Institution’s Central Exhibit Design Facility, we
were shown several examples of new techniques for construction of exhibits and
displays that were adapted from extracurricular projects that employees were
involved in. Manco told us about
several new adhesive tape ideas that originated from their employees’ hobbies.
Encourage Openness and Playfulness
Many of the organizations we saw practice open book
management. All go to great lengths
to encourage communication throughout all levels of the organization.
Most recognize the value of random meetings and interactions and have
designed their facilities to encourage such activities.
eLab (now part of Sapient) here in Chicago included a “Napatorium”, a
“Leave-Me-Alone Room”, and a room where each project was displayed for
feedback from other teams and individuals in its offices.
GSD&M designed its facility with numerous small meeting areas
throughout, each with a unique, fun, playful décor, intended to facilitate
random conversations. Manco
(located in Cleveland) has regular events with fun, often family oriented
themes, including a tradition of the company president swimming across an
outdoor pond every January if the company meets or exceeds its financial
targets. Many of the facilities we
toured incorporated colorful, whimsical décor.
Again, a practice common to every organization we saw.
Both GSD&M and Cirque du Soleil have prominent displays of awards
throughout their building and GSD&M has a “brag board” at the main
entrance. Roberts Express has
ongoing employee, contractor, and customer appreciation activities.
Manco has a regular schedule of company-wide events throughout the year
to celebrate it’s accomplishments.
Clearly Communicate History
Dell Computer includes history lessons in its new employee
orientation. Their practice of
sending each new employee three boxes of materials and gifts prior to their
official start date includes articles and other materials that prominently
feature the company’s history. American
Greetings has displays of photos and artifacts throughout its offices showing
the company’s history and especially its origins.
Cirque du Soleil designed its building to use materials that are intended
to remind everyone there of the group’s origins as street performers.
Every organization we visited had cultural artifacts and teaching stories
related to their shared histories.
Maintain Intense Customer Focus
In response to customer requests, Roberts Express has
developed software for its call center that automatically routs incoming calls
back to the original call taker, so that customers always speak with someone who
is familiar with their shipment. GSD&M
created dedicated, themed work spaces for their major accounts – an airport
gate area for Southwest Airlines; a gas station motif for Penzoil; a giant,
custom built, steel topped worktable for the Steel Industry; etc.
Cirque du Soleil designed its entire building so that all workspaces have
internal windows looking out into the training and rehearsal areas.
Everyone, no matter what their function, can always look up and see what
the end product is. Sterling
Consulting created a sort of “customer ombudsman” position responsible for
meeting with every client at the end of the engagement and evaluating the
outcome. This person is charged with doing whatever is necessary to
make things right should those outcomes not meet expectations.
Focus on Trends
American Greetings maintains several “trend rooms”
which are changed every two to three months.
On a rotating basis, employee teams are charged with identifying various
color, motif, and other design trends that will directly or indirectly have an
impact on their product lines. Nortel’s
Corporate Design Group is charged with constantly monitoring the cutting edge in
technologies to find new ways to apply those trends to its products.
While Del Computer does not develop technologies themselves, they are
constantly fine-tuning their production, inventory, and other systems to enable
them to be the first to market with technology developed elsewhere.
Cross Functional Teams
Nearly every organization we visited incorporated
cross-functional teams and/or some form of cross functional training as a
regular, formal methodology. Perhaps
the best example of this was the Nortel Corporate Design Group.
CDG (since renamed, I believe) is Nortel’s cutting edge, blue sky, five
to eight year out technology design group.
Each project in development was team based, teams, at a minimum, were
composed of designers, engineers, and marketing people.
One team that we met with was led by an employee with a Doctorate in the
behavioral sciences – certainly not what one would expect in a high tech
setting! The impact of this
approach upon the products in development was simply extraordinary.
These represent the nine most striking common
characteristics of the organizations we researched. All were in different industries. All had different business models and structures.
Will implementing these concepts in your organization guarantee world
class innovation? Not
necessarily… but you certainly won’t achieve constant, ongoing innovation
Robin Cook is an
Organizational Development expert located in Chicago.
You may reach Robin by
calling (773) 262-7018 or email Robin at:
firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to learn more about Robin
See Robin Cook's Molecular
Model for Organization Development.