#556 Innovative Leader
Volume 11, Number 7
Learned From Innovative Organizations
Cook is a 1998 Innovation University Fellow. His teammates, Greg
Fleet and Tim Mills, helped compile the observations in this
1998 and April 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
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. I will briefly outline some key lessons the
Innovation University Fellows took away from the program.
Perhaps the most
striking lesson was just how much these disparate organizations
had in common. Virtually
every one of them displayed nine shared characteristics:
clearly expressed shared values
appreciation of/for the whole individual and everything s/he can bring to the organization
that encourage openness and playfulness
• A strong,
clearly communicated sense of history
• Intense customer
focus on trends, even
those that do not seem to directly effect current businesses
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, Texas, 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.
the Whole Individual
demonstrated a clear understanding of the value every 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.
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) included a “Napatorium,” a “Leave-Me-Alone
Room,” and a room where each project was displayed for feedback
from other teams and individuals.
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,
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.
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 of the group’s origins as street performers. Each organization we visited had cultural artifacts and
teaching stories related to their shared histories.
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.
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.
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
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 they will take you a long way down