How to Spark Brilliance in Yourself and Innovation in Your Company

Companies only have two competitive advantages: their people and innovation. And people are the ones who come up with innovative ways to do things. Without that push to evolve, a firm may not be around in the near future.

Companies such as Google, Apple, Zappos and Cisco invest a lot of time and energy on two things: making sure that their people are engaged and excited about what they are doing and creating an atmosphere of innovation.

How do they do this? First, they pay attention to employees’ needs and tell them how much they appreciate what they do. Managers walk around and get to know employees and their passions, likes, dislikes and motivations.

Second, they create a climate where innovation is rewarded and there are no bad ideas. They don’t negate new ideas. They embrace everything as a possibility and discuss the options. They are not afraid of failure. They foster an environment where people can come together formally and informally to share ideas and thoughts on how business is done and how to make it better. Employees are taught to silence their inner critic and managers are taught to say “yes” and “thank you” instead of “no, but” or “we tried that before and it didn’t work.” To be clear, “Yes, and . . .” doesn’t mean agreeing with everything. “Yes, and . . .” creates a healthy dialogue and meaningful discussions.

For example, an engineering company tried to come up with ideas for creating more fun and engagement at work. In the group exercise, everyone’s ideas were responded to with “yes, but . . .” to raise awareness about old, limiting habits. Then, the group switched the exercise to “yes, and…” responses. The positive suggestions built upon each other until the group came up with a way to foster innovation in the company by gathering together for 20 minutes per day to “play.” For those 20 minutes, employees could do anything they wanted to do as long as it wasn’t their day-to-day job (e.g., they could tackle a bigger issue or work on a new way of doing something).

As engineers, they were taught to find every way that something would not work, which effectively was shutting down their creativity and innovation. With the 20-minute play rule, they had the opportunity to come up with completely new ways of looking at things.

Framework for Innovation
What is the atmosphere at your company? Is it open to new ideas and innovation? Thinking differently is essential to surviving in this economy. Early designers of flying machines used movable wings because it emulated a bird in flight, but it wasn’t until the paradigm was shifted with fixed wing aircraft that manned flight became possible. Artificial hearts emulate a real heart with chambers and a flow of blood that causes a heartbeat, but the latest innovation in that arena is an artificial heart with a simple pump that continuously flows the blood through the body. There is no heartbeat.

These paradigm shifts led to efficient and simple solutions, but it took someone to look at the way things were being done and say, “what if…”

Companies are starting to wake up to this fact about innovation. What if they starting hiring MFAs (masters of fine arts) instead of MBAs? Would these creative people give companies the competitive edge they need?

What is your expertise? What are your employees’ talents? How can you leverage that in a business setting to create new revenue streams? Don’t think about how you’ve always done business. Think about what value you and your people bring and see if that is applicable in other areas. Get a group discussion going and brainstorm this concept. You never know where it will lead.

Some people resist embracing creativity and innovation because they think there are no rules, boundaries or processes involved. But there are some great methodologies out there that serve as frameworks for innovation. One of them is from Stanford’s
Institute of Design
. This five-step process is amazing for design and problem-solving.
  1. Empathize: Ask end users a lot of questions and find out the needs and criteria for the solution. Put yourself in their shoes. What is the perfect desired outcome?
  2. Clearly define the problem: Einstein said if he had one hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem. By clearly defining the problem, the solution becomes more apparent. NASA asked: “How do we get a pen to write in space?” They spent a lot of money coming up with a space pen that could write in zero gravity. The Russians defined the problem differently. They asked: “How can we write in space?” The answer was simple: Use a pencil.
  3. Ideate: Brainstorm and come up with as many solutions as possible. 
  4. Prototype: Actually build one of the solutions.
  5. Test: Check to see if it works. If not, go back and create another protoype or go back even further to ideation. 
A Note on Adaptability
Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” quote is usually taken out of context. By “fittest,” he didn’t mean the strongest. He meant the one who could adapt. Those are the ones who survive.

The movie “Moneyball” is a great reminder of this concept. Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, wanted to change the game of baseball by abandoning the traditional scouting process and using statistical analyses to find the “right” players who could attain the correct number of runs and wins to earn a playoff slot. It worked quite well. The Athletics won 20 games in a row, setting a new baseball record. Although the Athletics never won a championship, they consistently had good teams even though their budget was 40 percent smaller than some other big league teams’ budgets. The ROI on this approach is undeniable.

Ten Ways to Spark Corporate Creativity
So, how do we think differently about the construction business? Many of the following concepts are a bit outrageous. But many of them also are not new; they come from companies that do these things already. Perhaps there are ways to adapt these ideas to the construction industry and your business.
  1. Make every employee do anything other than work for one hour a day. It can be anything from surfing the web to rollerblading. This gives them some downtime and clears their head for thinking in innovative ways. Employees will be more creative, less stressed and more satisfied.
  2. Put in nap/recharge rooms so employees can restore themselves throughout the day. Study after study shows this improves the bottom line and employees’ health.
  3. Let employees bring pets or children to work. This decreases stress and can increase employees’ time at work.
  4. Create a results-oriented work environment. Let employees set their own work hours and self-direct what they want to work on. Management can set work goals, but not tell employees how or when they need to be done. Depending on the position and the project, there are many days where employees could work from anywhere.
  5. Collaborate with each other (industry-wide, even competitors) on best practices for marketing, purchasing, procurement and delivery. Help each other and share the rewards. Come from a place of abundance where there is enough work for everyone.
  6. Find as many ways as possible to create a positive emotional experience internally and externally. Laugh, do office chair races or play games. Employees should have fun every single day.
  7. Take a risk. The risk-averse nature of the construction industry stifles creativity and innovation. Reward innovation, cultivate it and revel in it. Don’t condemn ideas that didn’t work; just move on to the next one. Edison found 999 ways that a light bulb didn’t work before he came up with one that did.
  8. Give employees as much time off as humanly possible during the workweek and for vacation without checking in. This is vital for your employees to recharge their health and well-being, as well as their longevity.
  9. Spread love inside and outside of the company. Work doesn’t always have to be serious.
  10. Re-brand the company and fill it with spirit. Most contractors’ and engineers’ brand says trustworthy, reliable, stable, ethical and probably a list of other very nice words. But these words are a bit stuffy. Look at most commercials on television for a variety of products and services. All of them are filled with positive emotions: Coke: Open Happiness. Love: It’s what makes a Suburu a Suburu. Harley Davidson doesn’t sell motorcycles; they sell freedom and independence. Construction has really missed the boat. The company that figures out how to brand itself with fun, love, humor, innovation and creativity will rise above the competition.
As a bonus idea, what if you came up with a completely new way of delivering construction services? What if you used a GoFundMe model as a way to finance a building? What if you built projects for free and received a percentage of the rents for the next 20 years and made 10 times what you would have made with the traditional model? What if you became more of a service contractor that took care of clients from cradle to grave? You could help with the initial design, financing and building, as well as maintain the building throughout its life. That is a continuous revenue stream instead of a pay-for-services model. Companies like IBM, AT&T and HP are adopting this model. They no longer sell products; they create a relationship for life.

Owners are starved for this type of approach to building. It may seem like it’s all about low price, but there is a backlash to the low bid mentality. The only ones making money are the lawyers. And according to Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines, “spirit” and intangibles are much harder for the competition to replicate.

These ideas may seem ridiculous. It may seem impossible to do any of these in the construction business, especially on projects. But the bottom line is that the companies that actually implement these kinds of radical changes and find new ways of working will dominate the industry. It may not be the ideas listed above; new strategies would have to be adapted and changed to fit company culture and industry standards. But the firms that continue to limp along with concepts that are hundreds or thousands of years old are doomed.

Ten Ways to Instigate Personal Growth
And what about you as an individual? How do you get your own creative juices flowing?
  1. Get a little crazy. Do something weird, yell at the top of your lungs or talk in a strange voice.
  2. Know that everyone is creative. Creativity is like a muscle; it can be developed. When you look at the typical profile for most construction folks, they score high in reality testing (black and white thinkers) and problem-solving and low in flexibility. This is not an ideal profile for creativity, but the good news is people can change.  
  3. Accept that more heads are better than one. Bounce ideas off others. Brainstorm in diverse groups without any censorship. Different perspectives can generate amazing creativity.
  4. Start writing things down. Make lists. When you get an idea, capture it. Keep writing, even after you have exhausted all possibilities.
  5. Reframe the problem. Create an unusual solution and then ask yourself, “Why is this a great solution?”
  6. Use a ridiculous correlation. Randomly put your finger in a book, look for the nearest noun and ask yourself, “How is this problem like a [fill in the blank]?” Brainstorm in this manner will help give you some perspective on the problem.   
  7. Don’t say “no” or “yes, but ...” or “I tried that before and it didn’t work.”  Say “yes, and…” to build on the ideas generated.
  8. Know you are truly unique. Your brain is the only brain that thinks like you do. Celebrate that and promote that and know that you can break through anything. Lack of experience can be an asset. Sometimes a master can’t see past how he’s always done it.
  9. Get physical. While you are thinking, do a physical activity: walk, stomp, shake, dance or run. It will help your brain work better.
  10. Ask the right questions. Instead of asking “paper or plastic?” ask “how would you like to carry your groceries home?” A canvas bag might be the “right” answer. 
A famous creativity experiment asks people to connect nine dots using four straight lines without lifting the pencil from the paper. Try it and see what you come up with.

This is where the saying “thinking outside the box” comes from. How many different ways can you connect these nine dots with as few lines as possible? When you ask that question, you get all kinds of creative solutions, such as:
  • one big fat line;
  • one line that circles the earth three times and connects each row of dots;
  • one line, where the paper is folded and the dots are all stacked on top of each other; and
  • three lines, where the dots are fat and the lines form a “z.”
By asking a different question and expanding those limits, the number of ideas and potential solutions expand as well. Here is the “real” answer:

The next time you are faced with a dilemma, the next time you want to develop a strategic plan, the next time you are stuck, and the next time you want to try to do things differently, spark the genius in yourself and cultivate creativity in your company by creating an atmosphere of innovation.


Brent Darnell is president and owner of Atlanta-based Brent Darnell International, as well as a best-selling author and leading authority on emotional intelligence. He was a presenter during the Young Professional Leadership Development Track at ABC’s Leadership Week Nov. 10-12 in San Diego. For more information, email brent@brentdarnell.com or visit brentdarnell.com.