How to Build a “Why Not” Culture: A key to fostering creativity and innovation
By Bob Kelleher President and Founder, The Employee Engagement Group | January 22, 2012
I am all about engagement, having experienced firsthand the connection between employee engagement and customer satisfaction. A key engagement driver is creating an environment in which your employees' opinions and ideas matter. As such, leadership teams must empower employees to seek ways to improve the guest experience, boost profitability, build brand, improve marketing, and improve quality. To be better than your competitors, you have to be different – and your employees often have the answers. Perhaps you just haven't asked. Or perhaps you have but no one responded. Or perhaps you've asked, heard, and forgot about following up on your "we'll get back to you" reply.
Many leaders fail to create a safe environment for employees to contribute ideas. Or worse, they create an environment in which new ideas are met with rejection. I tell leadership teams that if they want to kill employee engagement or employee initiative, then they simply tell employees that they can't do something "...because that's not how we do it here", or "...because we've tried that before" or "...because management will never accept that" or "...because it is not policy". A "because" culture ultimately leads to status quo, and status quo simply does not breed creativity or innovation.
To understand why we settle into "because" cultures requires us to understand and recognize the societal and business pressures to conform. In our personal lives, we tend to get more set in our ways as we age, and subsequently become more resistant to change. In our business lives, we become conditioned to work a certain way. This is exasperated by the natural bureaucracies that occur over time as companies grow. In Chic Thompson's book, 'What a Great Idea', he shares with his readers a number of specific group studies that support why we become victims of "because". Thompson highlights one particular study in which he compares the level of creativity with both 5 and 44 year-olds. This study was conducted using the same creativity exam NASA uses to gauge the creativity of its astronauts. Remarkably, 8% of 5 year-olds passed the exam while tragically, only 2% of 44 year-olds passed. In another study, Thompson shares research that shows that the average 5 year-old asks 65 "why" questions a days, while the average 44 year-old only ask 6 questions a day. I know that laughter is a key engagement driver, and necessary to create the kind of environment in which people can unleash their creative energy. Sadly, laughter also decreases as we age. The average 5 year-old laughs 113 times a day - decreasing as we age to a bare 11 times a day at age 44. No wonder we have a hard time being innovative in the workplace!
Hotels that foster both engagement and innovation often start with building an environment of "why not". Continuous improvement is about change and challenging the norm. Companies fail when they stop evolving their product or service, or they become complacent, or are afraid to fix what is not yet broken, or worry about the investment necessary to innovate, or worry about failure ("what if we're wrong?").
The history is full of really good companies led by really smart leaders who stopped innovating. Why did Digital Equipment Corporation founder and CEO Ken Olsen continue to produce minicomputers while competing start-ups built personal computers? How was it that Jeff Taylor, founder of Monster.com, was able to launch Monster.com and not the New York Times or the Boston Globe, who employed thousands of talented employees? Why didn't Polaroid see the emergence of digital photography? Folklore has it that Polaroid actually invented the digital camera but was afraid of investing in a product that could potentially cannibalize their cash cow base business. These are all examples of leading for "today" and not creating cultures of creativity for tomorrow. Innovation requires investing today's cash to discover tomorrow's new service or product offerings, technologies, geographies, or approaches.
Why Not cultures requires hotel executives to seek ideas that are different than their own. Innovation often comes from those who are not the architects of the present. Too often, today's leaders become protective over what they've created. I see countless leadership teams who surround themselves with people who think just like them. Birds of like feather don't innovate. Diversity of thought leads to innovation.