On censoring and innovation

Perhaps it’s apophenia or selection bias but reading Stephen’s latest post over at Pack Rat on Tim Cook and Steve Ballmer struck a chord with some other stuff I’ve been reading and thinking about. As I wrote previously I’ve been concerned with self-censoring and fostering creativity lately, both for my organization and my personal benefit.  I started reading Tina Seelig’s “inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity” and was very interested to see that she calls out some research by Charles Limb at Johns Hopkins University that notes that it looks like the brain turns off some self-monitoring functions during acts of creativity.  Interesting, I’m sure many people would posit that Steve Jobs often had his self-monitoring, or self-censoring, functions turned off, perhaps that’s why he was so creative.  Another interesting observation that Prof. Seelig makes is that as people and organizations mature they often focus on execution to the detriment of creativity, and this mirrors some of the observations, or concerns, that Stephen raises in his post.  But there’s good news according to Prof. Seelig, you can learn to be creative and to put your own “innovation engine” to work.  I recommend you read “inGenius” for more, I will say she does a very good job of laying this all out and giving you some tactical ways to amp up your creativity.

Stephen’s post really got me thinking about how execution versus innovation is a real issue in many organizations, my own included, and how do we go about balancing the two to build successful enterprises, IT organizations, and individuals.  Business is expecting, almost demanding, that IT become more innovative because IT services provide many avenues to customers, efficiency and shareholder value.  I’d argue that the majority of the thinking on IT for the last thirty years has focused almost exclusively on execution however.  “How do we do things better, faster, cheaper?” is a question asked by many IT executives.  This can lead to innovation if it is approached this way, but often it’s not a question, it’s just a demand.  If there aren’t people in an organization who are focused and goaled on creativity or innovation it is very hard to get it from folks who are doing it as a “night job”, especially in a market like this and with smaller IT staffs managing ever growing environments.

We need to make time for creativity, for innovation, and we have to empower and encourage our people to do the same.  Google has gotten a lot of great press, and I’d bet a lot of shareholder value, out of this sort of thinking.  I think that EMC has done a great job on the engineering side of the house with fostering innovation as long chronicled by the great Steve Todd over at the Information Playground blog.  I’ve been proud to participate and be a judge in EMC’s Innovation Showcase and want to see more EMC Consulting participation in this event, but we need to tweak the concept a bit for Services to drive additional value for my team and our customers.

A very dedicated group of consultants and managers in my organization got together and created what I think will be a great “innovation engine” for our team.  They call it the M.O.B., I won’t go in to what that stands for, I think it’s a very cool name and a great excuse for them to wear fedoras.  What they did was to organize a framework for tracking the practice development needs of our organization, break them up into workable chunks (2 to 4 hour activities), and then published them in our collaboration system so that anyone who has the time and inclination can work on them and most importantly get credit for their contribution to our team’s success.  I couldn’t be more proud or excited about this, the team has done a great job and we are seeing the participation rate on practice development really grow.  I’m most proud of the fact that this isn’t a top down mandated thing, but rather a grass roots effort.  I think Prof. Seelig would approve and I think efforts like this help companies build their “innovation engine” without having to sacrifice execution.

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