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10.8. Unblocking Entire Companies


How To Invent (Almost) Anything > 10. Getting Past the Blocks > 10.8. Unblocking Entire Companies

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A question that is on the lips of many executives is, ‘How can I create a culture of invention and creativity within my company?’ The key word here is ‘culture’, which means values, beliefs and attitudes that lead to specific behaviours. It also implies the ‘climate’, which is the specific environment in which innovation may occur.

The biggest task of managing for innovation is not so much asking people to invent as removing the subtle blocks that prevent them from doing so. An unblocked environment can have a negative impact on the sense of control of managers who are accustomed to the command and control approach, but the evidence of innovative companies shows clearly that inventing to order is not easy. Even using the methods in this book is no guarantee of success, especially in the face of the huge walls that many organizations have built. Companies seldom deliberately set out to stifle innovation: their rules and systems are primarily aimed at encouraging conformity, but these same rules become powerful deterrents to anyone daring to think outside the ‘corporate genetic coding’.

The real question for many companies is hence not so much ‘How can I make people innovative’ as ‘How can I allow people to be innovative.’


People are not stupid. They do not accept values from a poster or from managers reading from a little card. They deduce your values and act accordingly. It is thus very important for leaders to display and use behaviours that motivate people to invent. Here is a quote from David Packard’s ‘The HP Way’:

“Upon first being approached by a creative inventor with unbridled enthusiasm for a new idea, Bill immediately put on a hat called ‘enthusiasm’. He would listen, express excitement where appropriate and appreciation in general, while asking a few gentle and not too pointed questions. A few days later, he would get back to the inventor wearing a hat called ‘inquisition’. This was the time for very pointed questions, a thorough probing of the idea, lots of give-and-take. Without a final decision the session was adjourned. Shortly thereafter, Bill would put on his ‘decision’ hat and meet once again with the inventor. With appropriate logic and sensitivity, judgement was rendered and a decision made about the idea.”

This is very similar to Walt Disney’s approach, as described by one of his animators:

'…there were actually three Walts: the dreamer, the realist and the spoiler. You never knew which one was coming into your meeting.'

Notice how this is the action of leaders of the organization, the people at the very top who set the tone and the culture in everything they say and do. An innovative company has innovative leaders who model appropriate behaviours and both encourage and empower their employees to do likewise.

Values and other rules

Values, as Chapter 8 indicates, are the basic rules that underlie much behaviour. Values that encourage invention are not only are directly about innovation, but also lead to the prevention or removal of blocks. Hewlett-Packard have values of innovation and contribution. They also have values of trust and integrity.

3M have an informal rule that 15% of their people’s time may be spent on personal projects, which is how Post-it Notes started. This encourages people to be curious and experimental. Another variation of this is the ‘skunk works’, where projects that got cancelled simply went underground. Hewlett-Packard’s DeskJet is just one product that originated in this way. The bottom line is to give people space to play, even if it means turning a blind eye.

Visions and things

A vision is a motivating view of the future that drives a whole company towards a common future. This means everyone understands it (so it must be well communicated), can remember it (so it must be short) and buy into it (so it must be inspiring).

Hewlett-Packard’s ‘Process of Management’ system says ‘build a shared vision’, where a vision is a ‘motivating view of the future.’ The manager’s main task is then to remove blocks so their people can achieve the vision. This is only broken down so far, as their ‘Management By Objectives’ approach is to tell people what is wanted, but not how. This is followed by ‘Managing By Wandering Around’, where managers are always visible, interested and are actively seeking to remove blocks, not create them.

How you can use visions to turn an organization into a company of inventors is best summed up by Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley in their book, ‘Why Change Doesn’t Work’:

“The way to make effective long term change is to first visualize what you want to accomplish, and then inhabit this vision until it comes true. And change is an act of the imagination. Until the imagination is engaged, no important change can occur.”


The values of a company are propagated through its communications, as well as the actions of its leaders. Communications that create or remove blocks include:

  • The objectives that managers give to their subordinates.
  • The company newsletters, magazines and journals.
  • Promotions, PR and other communications outside the company.
  • The stories that people tell one another at the coffee machine.
  • The myths and legends that perpetuate.

If these communications are about meeting financial targets and saving money, then this is what will be perpetuated. Similarly, if the communications are about individuals who persisted and circumvented the system to invent great new products, then this will also tell the organization what is valued most.

Mixed messages can be very damaging. If you tell someone to bend the rules to create new ideas, then punish them for doing so, then they will get the message loud and clear: never, ever offer ideas again. Communications and actions must align with vision and business plans.

Recruitment and promotion

Although all people have far more ability to create and invent than they or their managers may think, you can help this along by recruiting people who are already unblocked and have the enthusiasm to invent. When Hewlett-Packard interviews people they keep in mind the fact that that person may do many jobs in the company, and that attitude and enthusiasm are as important as skills for the immediate job in question.

Promotion sends loud messages about values and leads to managers who either inhibit or encourage innovation. To be a senior manager at General Electric, you need to have visibly embraced and gained real results from their ‘Six Sigma’ business improvement system.

Overall, there are no half-measures when managing for innovation. If you value people, they will value you. If you trust them, they will act in a trustworthy way. If you challenge them with visions and objectives, they will strive to achieve those goals. If you remove the blocks to their achieving, they will achieve greatly.

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