Creating an Environment of Innovation

This is the third in a three-part series on Innovation. The first part discussed the need for innovation, with examples of companies like 3M that have achieved success by continually innovating. The second part was on encouraging innovation in the workplace by hiring Idea Generators.

I’ve written about the need for innovation in the workplace and provided some tips on how to hire Idea Generators. In this post, I’ll discuss how to create an environment in your business that encourages innovation and creative thinking.

In some businesses, employees are blatantly or subtly encouraged to keep their thinking squarely inside the box. The most creative they are allowed to be is when it comes time to order lunch.

If you want innovation in your workplace, and trust me, you do, you need to actively encourage it by following these suggestions.

Plan your space to allow for easy collaboration

As Margaret Heffernan, a former CEO of five businesses said, “For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.”

If you’ve read anything about the history of Pixar, you know that Steve Jobs influenced the design of the building to encourage interaction and unplanned collaborations among departments. He went so far as to suggest that the large campus only have one set of bathrooms in the atrium so employees would be forced to go there several times a day. (That idea was quickly vetoed.)

“If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity,” Jobs said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”

Give employees time during the week to explore their passion projects

In my first post on Innovation, I wrote about 3M and how it’s grown into a multi-billion dollar company through developing innovative products. The company has done this by implementing their 15 percent time rule, one it has had since 1948. 3M allows its people the time to investigate their ideas. That time has resulted in products such as Scotch tape and the Post-it note.

They also reward the best of these. Twice a year, six to eight ideas are awarded Genesis Grants, and the employees receive from $30,000 to $75,000 in seed money for 12 months of research.

Host a Hackathon

Started in the software industry, a hackathon is an event that pulls together people from different departments. It may last from one day to a week, generally with a specific purpose in mind.

Hootsuite hosts Hoot-Hackathons, two-day casual events for employees to meet new people and pitch ideas. “These events foster a culture of innovation and gets people enthusiastic about new ideas. Plus, it doesn’t cost a lot,” wrote Ryan Holmes in the article “Innovate or Die: 3 Ways to Stay Ahead of the Curve.”

Don’t punish failure and mistakes

Failure and mistakes are the steppingstones to mistakes. The Japanese engineer Soichiro Honda said, “Success is 99% failure.” I’m not sure I’d agree with that high of a percentage, but you get the idea. If some ideas don’t pan out, you’ve learned something. Remember what Albert Einstein said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there will be no hope for it.”

Have your employees on board with the concept

Even those employees who may not be your most creative can take pride in working for a company that encourages and embraces it. And besides, you never know where that next great idea will come from. Let your employees know that you are looking for creative thinking.

The American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Once you have an innovation culture, even those who are not scientists or engineers – poets, actors, journalists – they, as communities, embrace the meaning of what it is to be scientifically literate. They embrace the concept of an innovation culture. They vote in ways that promote it. They don’t fight science and they don’t fight technology.”

Management Consultant Peter Drucker said, “Business has only two basic function – marketing and innovation.”

Companies tend to spend a lot of time and attention on marketing. How is your company handling the function of innovation?

How to Encourage Innovation in the Workplace

This is the second in a three-part series on Innovation. The first in the series, “Innovation Distinguishes Between a Leader and a Follower,” provided some examples of companies like 3M that have stayed successful for decades by continuing to innovate. These next two parts focus on the steps to encouraging innovation.

In my last post, I wrote about the need for businesses to continually innovate. As Steve Jobs said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

But innovation isn’t something you can just mandate, like telling your employees they need to schedule their lunch hours at certain times. And it’s not just adding a line item to your budget under the column “Innovation.”

Ironically, results from innovation and creative thinking are often not related to the amount of money spent. As Steve Jobs also said, “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R & D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R & D. It’s not about money.”

So what did he say it is about? “It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

After reading my last post, I hope you get the need for innovation. So let’s talk about how to hire people that will help you innovate.

Hiring the Idea Generators

Any manager knows there are differences between the people who excel at coming up with ideas and those that excel at execution of those ideas. A successful company will have a combination of both at all levels. And never has it been more important to find those idea people.

As Richard Florida, an American urban studies theorist, said, “Access to talented and creative people is to modern business what access to coal and iron ore was to steel-making.”

Consider Walt and Roy Disney, co-founders of Walt Disney Productions. Walt was the big idea guy, while Roy’s expertise was in finance. “Walt had this idea [for Walt Disney World]. My job all along was to help Walt do the things he wanted to do. He did the dreaming. I did the building,” he once told reporters.

But it’s a lot easier to review a resume and determine if someone can handle the financial area of your company. How can you scout for people good at generating ideas?

There’s no particular college degree that would indicate a person’s creativity. Some of our generation’s best innovators famously didn’t finish college — I bet you can name three right away. (Think Facebook, Apple and Microsoft.)

And the people who did come up with great ideas aren’t always recognized for them. Ironically, the person who invented the fire hydrant remains unknown because the patent was lost in a fire at the patent office in D.C. in 1836.

Here are a few tips to find and hire these Idea Generators:

Ask your current employees

The people you have on staff, particularly the more creative ones, probably already know some people they admire as idea generators and would like as co-workers. Let your staff know of your efforts, recruit among their recommendations and offer a referral bonus

Tailor your interview questions to identify them

Ask questions that will reveal a candidate’s creative past. Ask for ideas they have come up with and implemented at previous workplaces or any organizations with which they have been involved. You may find someone who volunteers at an organization who came up with a killer fundraising idea.

Add innovative features to the interview process

A friend’s son recently underwent an hour-long interview exclusively devoted to brainteasers. In a previous post, “Tips on Hiring from the Corner Office,” I wrote about a company that leaves a candidate with a calculator, pencil and a sandwich and returns in two hours. That’s for analysts positions at a $2 billion hedge fund, but you get the idea. Just as you are judging your candidate, they are judging the innovation of your company starting with the way in which you hire people.

Present an environment that encourages creativity

Idea generators want to know they will be in an environment that will foster their creativity, not stifle it. For tips on how to create such an environment, read the third part of this series.

Innovation Distinguishes Between a Leader and a Follower

That’s a quote from the most famous innovator in recent history — Steve Jobs. To be successful, a company has to continually innovate. Here are just a few examples of companies that did and are thriving.

Will Housh was a member of the third generation of a family-owned HVAC business. While it was successful, he saw that e-commerce was coming to the HVAC industry while others in the business were unwilling to embrace the new technology. “Even though our family business was generating sales of more than $12 million in a good year, just how sustainable are mom-and-pop businesses in the age of the Internet?” he wrote in the article “How to Make an Unpopular Decision.”

He saw the industry changing. Customers were starting to use the Internet to connect with contractors and get lower prices. So he started an online and retail business, eventually selling his grandfather’s company to focus on his new business, Housh Inc.

“Whereas our old school HVAC business never made more than $12 million in annual revenue, Housh, Inc. has doubled revenue annually in the past three years and expects $20 million in revenue for 2014. In 2011, our business had three employees–it now has more than 20,” he wrote.

In 1909, James McGraw, a former schoolteacher and founder of The McGraw Publishing Company, and John Hill, founder of The Hill Publishing Company, merged their companies to form McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. Despite being primarily known as a textbook company, it was always at the forefront of changes in technology in education.

In 1989, it introduced the first computerized publishing system to instructors who could use it to customize their textbooks. In 2006 it became the first to offer online assessments and in 2009, it created a Center for Digital Innovation, launching McGraw-Hill Connect, an all-digital teaching and learning exchange for higher education. In 2013, McGraw-Hill completed a sale of its education division to Apollo Global Management for $2.5 billion. It’s doubtful a textbook company could have generated that kind of sale.

3M started as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company to mine a mineral deposit for grinding-wheel adhesives. It struggled in its early years but then invested in technical innovations, such as the world’s first waterproof sander. In 1925, a lab technician invented masking tape, followed years later by cellophane tape, both with the brand name Scotch. (Fun fact: the story goes that the lab technician asked a painter to test an early version of the masking tape and it fell off. He told the lab technician “Take this back to your stingy Scotch bosses and tell them to put more adhesive on it.”)

Ensuing years brought new electro-mechanical products, with the pharmaceutical, radiology and energy control markets added in the 1970s and 1980s. Last quarter, 3M set a record with $8.1 billion in reported sales.

Continued innovation is vital to the success and growth of a company. As the physicist William Pollard said, “Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”

In the next column, I’ll discuss ways to encourage innovation at your company.

The Professional Advisors Your Business Needs to Hire

Welcome to part three of my three-part series on working with advisors. In week one, I discussed How to Find the Best Advisors for Your Business. Last week I shared tips on Getting the Most Out of Your Advisors. Today, I’ll talk about the professional advisors you should consider hiring.

Advisory boards can add a lot of value to your company when the members share their wisdom and experience with you. But to give your business its best chance for success, you’ll need to hire professional advisors as well. Here are just three that your business will need.

Accountant and/or Financial Advisor

You need a numbers person to work with you on your budget and determine tax implications of decisions for growth. A good accountant or financial advisor can also provide analysis of how your company is doing and ways to improve your financial situation.

A good CPA or accountant should also be on the lookout for fraud and ensure you have proper controls on how your accounts are handled. The accountant should also have a good relationship with your banker or lenders and can inspire confidence in them that your funds are being handled correctly.

Lawyer

Business owners and CEOs can, and do, run into potentially damaging legal issues all the time. A good lawyer can advise you on how to handle these situations and set up policies and procedures to prevent problems in the first place.

You will also need to consult an attorney to draft any partnership agreements you may enter into, file a patent, handle real estate transactions and advise you if you plan on buying or selling a business. Of course, if you are threatened with any lawsuits you need to hire an attorney immediately. It’s best to find one that specializes in the particular area where you need help.

Management Advisors

A good advisory firm can supplement your skill set and provide solutions to complex business problems. I recently joined the team at GlassRatner, which helps businesses manage through a business crisis or bankruptcy, plans and executes a major acquisition or divestiture and addresses any other difficult business situation. The firm also provides forensic accounting services and litigation support.

Other advisors you may consider include sales consultants, business development consultants and public relations professionals.

My final tip is to hire advisors sooner rather than later if your business is running into trouble. One of my more distressing clients was one whose business could have been saved, if only I had been hired earlier. I talk about this sports bar in the Midwest in my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.”

This company had a large discrimination issue and filed bankruptcy without proper planning. If I had been involved earlier, I could have negotiated the discrimination issue, negated its demoralizing impact on the employees and advised against filing bankruptcy. We could have salvaged part of the company. Instead, they contacted me too late and they lost it.

Hiring the right advisors is worth the investment. They have the knowledge and experience to handle whatever issues your company is facing. And they are able to see solutions more clearly as they are not emotionally involved in the outcome.

Getting the Most Out of Your Advisors

Welcome to part two of my three-part series on working with advisors. Last week, I discussed How to Find the Best Advisors for Your Business. This week I share my top tips on utilizing their expertise to foster the growth and success of your business.

  1. Be clear about your expectations and create accountability

A new advisor may have been planning on a phone call every quarter, while you envision monthly face-to-face meetings. In the article “How to Use Advisors to Supercharge Your Business,” Eli Portnoy writes about giving up some equity in his company to his advisors and getting nothing in return. “Our advisors were fantastic and really wanted to help. The problem wasn’t them, it was me. My advisors were brought on at random, and furthermore, I failed to create structure and accountability.”

Leveraging the lessons he learned the first time around, when he brought on new advisors he made it clear what he was looking for from them. He drew up a two-year contract that stated they would meet or talk on the phone every other week and have an in-person session or dinner once a quarter. If all obligations were met, they would receive equity in his company after the two-year period.

  1. Be honest with them

To get the most out of your advisors, you have to operate in an arena of mutual trust. That means you have to share the challenges you are facing and your financial situation accurately.

This may be uncomfortable at times if things are not going so well. But perhaps especially in bad times, your advisors can prove crucial to weathering a difficult situation by first forcing you to confront the issues.

I devoted an entire chapter to facing your harsh realities in my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned From CEOs Mistakes.” Failure to do so is one of the major mistakes I have seen CEOs make, time after time.

If you share your information honestly, your advisors can be the ones forcing you to face your harsh realities before it’s too late. Maybe you are having a cash flow problem and aren’t sure how to resolve it. One of your advisors may have dealt with a similar scenario and have suggestions on the best way to deal with the situation. You can’t get the best advice without revealing the true picture of the financial situation of your company.

Your advisors may have some other great ideas to share with you even when it’s not a time of crisis. Let’s say you’re having your most successful year yet. Your advisors may have ideas on how to build on and leverage that success.

  1. Listen to their advice

While this sounds like just common sense, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve dealt with who had ended up in dire financial shape and it wasn’t because they weren’t getting good advice. They just didn’t listen to it.

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal last week, “Tuning Out: Listening Becomes a Rare Skill.” The article cited a study done in 2011 in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes that found that the more powerful the listener is, the more likely he is to dismiss advice from others.

You can gather the best advisors in your industry and share details about your business. But none of that will do a darn bit of good if you don’t actually follow it. These leaders are those that John Steinbeck was speaking of when he said, “No one wants advice – only corroboration.”

Finding the right advisors and working with them in the best way possible can make a huge difference in the success of your company. Eli Portnoy, the young man who made mistakes the first time around and then instituted structure and accountability, saw a huge difference in his company. “Thinknear took off within months of creating the new advisory board and structure. My personal weaknesses as a CEO became strengths and with the help of my advisors I was able to supercharge our trajectory.”

Advisors can make a big difference in your business, but there are still professional advisors you need to hire. For part three of this series, I’ll talk about those.

How to Find the Best Advisors for Your Business

A trusted team of talented advisors can be essential to the success of any business. But how do you go about finding the right ones for your business? And after you have identified them, what is the best way to utilize their expertise?

In this three-part series I’ll share tips on how to find good advisors and after adding them to your team, the best way to leverage their skills to foster the growth and success of your business.

For the first two parts, I am focusing on hiring for an advisory board. While advisory boards can be invaluable, any successful business needs to hire professional advisors as well. In part three, I’ll discuss what professional advisors you need to hire.

  1. Don’t hire advisors from your fan club

You may have some friends and colleagues who listen to your business ideas and respond with enthusiasm, cheering your every decision. These are not the people you want advising you. You want to find people that challenge your ideas, present opposing sides of view and are not afraid to play devil’s advocate.

A good advisor will bring up issues and concerns that you may not have considered, laying the groundwork for you to deal with those issues now and travel down the right path, rather than pay for those mistakes later.

While it may feel more natural and certainly more comfortable to surround yourself with people who share your outlook, they will function more as “yes” people than advisors. You need someone to challenge your less viable ideas and present alternative viewpoints.

  1. Look outside your existing network

Seek out new networking opportunities to expand your circle and find people with successful businesses who may be able to help. Finding the time to make and foster these contacts can be particularly challenging during high-growth periods for your business, but networking can pay off in ways you can’t foresee. As author Jared Kintz said, “Unless you are a pile of cat hair, you can’t succeed in a vacuum.”

  1. Hire advisors with different areas of expertise and skill sets

Identify areas of expertise where you are less than proficient and seek out advisors with relationships and experience in those areas. Maybe you have a great product, an excellent design team and people with marketing experience, but not the necessary expertise to reach your target market. Find an advisor who has those contacts.

Having access to skill sets your business lacks is crucial. I once worked with a university that was in dire straits. One of the issues it was facing is that senior management was trying to handle areas that were outside their expertise. That does not go well.

Finding a good, functional advisory board takes some time and effort. Some business people forego it altogether, perhaps believing as Judge Arthur Goldberg did, “If Columbus had an advisory committee he would probably still be at the dock.” While that may be true of some advisory boards that seem to serve as more as hindrances than boots to progress, if you find the right team of advisors you’ll have a better chance of smooth sailing.

Family Businesses That Have Thrived and Survived

During my long career as the Turnaround Authority, I’ve worked with many family businesses. The particular challenge of working with family members as opposed to just co-workers is that they are emotionally connected to each other, which has led to some rather, well, let’s say interesting interactions. Like the time a disgruntled son pulled a kitchen knife on his mom. Fortunately, family disputes don’t generally involve weapons. But the fact is it can be difficult to keep them running. Seventy percent either fail or are sold before the second generation and just 10 percent survive to the third. That’s a lot of companies when you consider that about 35 percent of Fortune 500 companies are family controlled. And family businesses account for 50 percent of the gross domestic product of the U.S. But many family-owned companies not only survive, they thrive.

Laird & Company owns the first liquor license distributed in the United States. The company remains family run.

Laird & Company owns the first liquor license distributed in the United States. The company remains family run.

We are familiar with many of the large, well-known family businesses that include Wal-Mart (Walton family), Mars (Mars family), News Corp. (Murdoch family) and Comcast (Roberts family). Here are a few interesting family businesses you most likely haven’t heard of, one from each of the past three centuries, that are still thriving. • Laird & Company owns the #1 liquor license distributed in the United States. Alexander Laird began producing Applejack in 1698 for his friends and neighbors. One of his descendants built the Colts Neck Inn in 1717 and sold Applejack, with the first commercial sale recorded in 1780. The company even survived Prohibition by producing brandy for medicinal purposes. Seems a lot of people were feeling poorly during those 14 years. • Rogers Funeral Home in Frankfort, Kentucky, has been helping people say goodbye to dearly departed loved ones since 1802. It is now owned by Mary Anna Rogers, whose daughter Doherty Rogers Reynolds and her husband Tim operate the home. They are the seventh generation of the Rogers family to own the business. • The Butt family still operates H.E.B. Grocery with 300 stores, primarily in Texas. Florence Butt opened the first C.C. Butt Grocery Store in Kerrville in 1906 with an investment of $60. Last year the company had $20 billion in revenue and was listed as #14 on Forbes list of America’s Largest Private Companies. I’d say that investment paid off. Death, alcohol and food. Maybe it helped that these businesses deal with products and services with a constant demand. So I was curious to see what the country’s oldest family-owned restaurant is, considering the high failure rate in that industry. The National Restaurant Association reports that 30 percent of new restaurants fail in the first year, with another 30 percent closing in the next two years. The distinction of the country’s oldest family-owned restaurant goes to Antoine’s Restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans. In 1840, Antoine Alciatore, a native of France, made his way to Louisiana where he felt at home among the French speakers there and began serving French-Creole cuisine. His son Jules ran the restaurant after his death and invented the famous Oysters Rockefeller. While the odds may seem against family businesses, many do survive into the third generation, and beyond. Of course, a business can increase its odds by hiring trusted advisors to help them navigate difficult times. In my next two posts, I’ll discuss how to find the best advisors for your business, and then how to make the most of their participation in your business.