Three simple words that can drive economic prosperity in turbulent times
By Min Basadur
How might leaders see turbulence as an opportunity, not a hindrance?
We live and work in an era of rapidly accelerating change with frequent upheavals and interruptions. Everywhere we look, traditional structures are abruptly being reshaped or falling down. Egypt is certainly no exception. Many organizations that prospered during more stable times — times that rewarded routinized efficiency — now find themselves poorly adapted to today’s new economic and social realities. Moreover, once successful companies are finding that their sure-hit formulas no longer work. Long revered icons of organizational excellence have been humbled, and even bailed out of bankruptcy and imminent demise by government intervention.
Individuals, families and entire communities are finding the world shifting beneath their feet as traditional markets, industries, societal structures and sources of employment disappear. Such change is occurring under the impact of new information technologies, global competition, lack of regulation of financial institutions, uncertainty about global warming, transitioning to new energy sources, and a restructuring of the world economy. It is not surprising that organizations whose main virtues during previous times were predictability and reliability should find it difficult to adapt to this increasingly dynamic environment. Their employees, too, are struggling to deal with these changing times as the vast scale of change has resulted in an unprecedented need for information processing and problem solving skills. But within the scope of the challenge lies a great opportunity for the future prosperity of organizations everywhere, and especially in Egypt.
Taking advantage of economic uncertainty and turbulence requires a corporate mindset eager to embrace change and innovation and determined to benefit from it. By making a deliberate choice to incorporate an innovation process into everyday work at all levels and across all disciplines, organizations can achieve sustained competitive advantage, positive people outcomes and an inevitable change to a more innovative culture. The right thinking skills and attitudes are fundamental to successfully embracing a process of innovation. Egypt’s cultural tendency toward early adoption of new things may be uniquely ‘leverageable’ to facilitate this move.
How might leaders strive to build organizational effectiveness with a particular focus on adaptability?
Research shows that effective organizations display two characteristics simultaneously: efficiency and adaptability. The efficient organization follows wellstructured, stable routines to deliver its products or services in large quantities with high quality at low cost. In a stable world, efficient organizations may be successful. But in a changing world, organizations also need adaptability. While efficiency implies mastering routines, adaptability means mastering the process of deliberately changing routines.
Adaptability is a proactive process: it allows the organization to deliberately and continually change and create. It entails deliberate discontent — discovering new needs to be met and problems to be solved, finding new things to be done, and adopting new technologies and methods before the competition. Adaptability is disruptive. It requires looking outside the organization for new opportunities, problems, trends, technologies and methods that may dramatically improve or change routines or introduce completely new products and services. Adaptable organizations anticipate customer problems and develop timely solutions. They deliberately and continually change how they do things to improve quality, raise quantities, reduce costs and stay ahead of competitors.
Organizations that build concrete strategies allowing them to confidently and capably shift the balance between adaptability and efficiency will be wellpositioned to adapt and prosper in volatile economic times, such as today’s environment. And while the results of emphasizing adaptability may take longer to appear than the results of an emphasis on efficiency, the long-term success of the strategy can be found by looking at Japan; While decision-making in many organizations in North America is driven by the next quarter’s results, Japanese organizations tend to favor long-term planning and reporting.
How might leaders establish a culture of finding good problems to solve as the engine for proactivity?
Many leaders are frustrated by their inability to motivate people. In some cases, it is because they are using the overly simplistic “scientific management” concept made popular in the early 20th century by Frederick Taylor, who believed that employees are motivated by only one dominant factor — money. Creativity may be the new cash when it comes to motivating employees. When people are given the opportunity to use their creativity in their everyday work, they are more highly motivated, have lower absenteeism rates and demonstrate a strong commitment to all aspects of their job. Some top Japanese organizations use employee suggestion systems to encourage creative behavior and drive creative output, including cost savings and new products and procedures. One company had 660,000 implemented new ideas from 9,000 employees in a single year. While these suggestion systems can result in highly valuable new ideas, their primary objective is to engage employees in the innovation process as part of their jobs.
Egypt’s renowned culture of empathy toward one another offers organizations a natural connection to a key element of this proven innovation process. Genuine respect and caring for others’ well being ties naturally into the ‘problem finding’ process that is summarized in the expression, “How might we?” Achieving breakthrough results starts with empathy for the needs and problems of internal and external users and customers. By surfacing customer needs and problems, often before they themselves are aware of them, organizations can find innovative solutions that answer the questions, “How might we help the customer?” and “How might the customer help?”
The secret is that innovation is a process, not an event or a happening. It is a creative problem solving process of finding and defining internal and external needs, developing solutions to address those needs and successfully implementing those solutions. The needs — or problems to be solved — can be found across a broad spectrum of areas, including, but not limited to technology, products, markets, packaging, design, manufacturing processes, new business models and new ways to go-to-market. The innovation process and the mental skills that make it work can be learned and become a daily habit that results in ongoing creative disruption and problem solving. Everyone can take part in this innovation process. Once learned and understood, people at every level of an organization can use it in every department.
It is not surprising that organizations whose main virtues during previous times were
predictability and reliability should find it difficult to adapt to this increasingly dynamic environment.
How might leaders design a creative thinking program that engages everyone to contribute?
Effective organizations know how to establish a wellunderstood process and set of skills for adaptability. They do not expect adaptability to be achieved without effort. For example, 3M sets a corporate objective that every five years, 30 percent of their products must be new. As solutions are implemented, new problems or opportunities for innovation and improvement are discovered. Top Japanese corporations place newly hired research and development (R&D) scientists and engineers into sales departments to begin their careers. The intent is for them to learn experientially the problems of the customer, and recognize that such learning is the beginning of innovation. Thus, a positive mindset towards creativity begins with a positive attitude towards problem finding; meaning the behavior of continuously and deliberately discovering and formulating new and useful problems to be solved.
Taking advantage of economic uncertainty and turbulence requires
a corporate mindset eager to embrace change and innovation and determined to benefit from it.
Although adaptability skills are essential, it would be naïve to believe that all that is needed is to train employees at all levels in a process of creative problem solving and the skills to make it work. This would only be one third of the battle. In order to make adaptability performance a normal way of life, an organization must integrate the process with a clear-cut business need and infrastructure to encourage employees to experience success applying it. Creative Problem Solving skills and process must be accompanied by communication and acceptance of a well understood and motivating organizational business need for adaptability. People need to understand why they suddenly need to use their creativity on the job. The business need must be translated into a specific goal(s) to pursue. Measurable adaptability goals must be placed into the corporate strategy. A complementing infrastructure must be created to encourage people to routinely use their skills to pursue such goals. An ideal scenario, for example, might see employees receive creative problem solving training. In the training, the process is learned by finding and solving specific company real world problems, rather than theoretical problems. Thus, progress is made against the goals during the training itself. Of course the infrastructure must extend the application of the training back to the job. The infrastructure might also include tracking, sharing and celebrating tangible progress.
Leaders in Egypt’s business community can facilitate the integration of this new kind of thinking into the daily operations of their businesses and communities as an ongoing process, rather than an “extra thing” they do “once in a while.” Each organization must develop a simple and unique (to the organization) innovation strategy, that combines achieving important business results with the involvement of people who are trained to use the innovation process skillfully.
How might leaders adopt a process of creative problem solving involving everyone, all the time, in everything they do?
Organizations must develop new ways of thinking and behaving in order to succeed in a turbulent world. While many organizations possess ample efficiency and analytical capability, successful organizations must also learn to integrate adaptability and innovative capability into their repertoires. Creative problem solving attitudes, behaviors, thinking skills and processes must be learned and developed to the extent that they become second nature. Organizations that adopt this approach will discover that creativity competency serves to complement analytical capability in building a highly effective operation that can thrive in today’s demanding business environment.
Although adaptability skills are essential, it would be naïve
to believe that all that is needed is to train employees at all levels in a process of creative problem solving and the skills to make it work.
One of the goals of the Center for Research in Applied Creativity is to help the field of creative problem solving become better understood in its applicability to innovation and real-world work. Adaptability is driven by a four-stage creative problem solving process comprised of generating, conceptualizing and solving important problems and implementing valuable new solutions. Generation is the proactive sensing of intriguing problems (trends, opportunities, and needs) and is sometimes called “opportunistic surveillance.”
Physical contact with, and involvement in, real world activities alerts the individual to inconsistencies and difficulties. These inconsistencies are then used to suggest new problem areas, to identify opportunities for improvement and innovation, and to propose projects that might be worth undertaking. The problems and opportunities are recognized, but are not yet clearly articulated or understood. The next step is conceptualization, which offers a more comprehensive analysis, definition and understanding of the opportunity.
In Optimization, conceptualized alternatives are systematically examined in order to develop a plan for implementing an optimal solution. The fourth stage, Implementation, consists of experimenting with the new solution, and making adjustments as necessary to successfully implement it. Individuals have different preferences for each stage and thus are said to have different innovation process “styles.” An easy to administer psychological instrument called the Creative Problem Solving Profile (CPSP) measures an individual’s relative preferences for the four different stages of the process and thus enables the building of cognitively diverse, highly effective teams.
Organizational leaders must recognize, nurture, reward and synchronize the different styles of creativity associated with the various stages of the creative process; particularly as different parts of organizations tend to prefer different stages and thus, contribute differently to the creative process. Gone are the days when a company could assign “creative work” to a select group of people, say, in the marketing or R&D department. Today, much more complex challenges posed by globalization of competition and technological advancement make it imperative for organizations to engage the creativity of all members, across multiple disciplines. No longer can the creative process be seen as a “relay race,” with one department handing off pieces of a project to the next. Rather than wait for others to “do their job first,” each department must be involved throughout the various stages of the creative process. By blending different kinds of knowledge and different kinds of cognitive problem solving styles, the entire organization can more quickly and successfully implement new solutions to newly discovered, welldefined problems and opportunities.
This knowledge also belongs at every level of the organization. By using this process, organizations can identify specific problems and challenges within a milieu of vague and wide-ranging issues. For example, issues are often identified with relatively broad statements such as, “Morale is bad here,” or “Communication is our biggest problem.” There is tremendous value in transforming such statements into more specific, simply worded challenges such as, “How might we help our employees take pride in their every day work?” or “How might we make it easier for every employee to create and implement improvements to our procedures, products and services?”
The success of the process depends on the skill of the participants in applying it. This skill includes being able to use simple and specific words in asking questions and providing answers. While leaders must develop their own adaptability skills, attitudes and behaviors, it’s equally important that they champion the development of those same skills, attitudes and behaviors for others throughout their organizations. Today’s corporate environment must welcome and incubate new and different ideas. It must nurture employees who challenge the status quo, perceive a different possibility, or simply look at things that aren’t and ask, “why not?” The new business rule: the discomfort of disruptive creativity must be embraced.
Creative problem solving attitudes, behaviors,
thinking skills and processes must be learned and developed to the extent that they become second nature.
How might leaders map out their program for building prosperity on a foundation of engagement and creative thinking?
Like their global counterparts everywhere, many Egyptian organizations are thirsting for a blueprint to follow to increase performance in these uncertain times. They are finding this a difficult task because things are not what they used to be. They are finding that how they provide value to consumers is no longer clear nor linear, but much more elusive and ambiguous. Many are turning their attention to attempting to become more innovative. One of the major challenges cited by Egyptian enterprises is to transition their business culture into one that engages employees at all levels in using their creative problem solving skills to making things better. The good news is that there is a proven readily available method to enable this transition. A new approach to organizational adaptability and ingenuity in which deep skill in executing creativity as a standard everyday process is the key; equally important to traditional deep skill in executing traditional efficiency processes.
With the new culture of a nation ripe for development after a successful revolution from autocracy, it is most prudent that innovation and creative problem solving be a core mindset in the general business culture to empower breakthrough improvements and change. There is a huge opportunity for Egypt’s societal and organizational leaders to embrace and use this fourstage process as a blueprint for cycling through all four stages as a consistent innovation process, just as they have standardized other processes. In other words, a creative problem solving process and the CPSP can be used to manage societal and organizational innovation and change, and to engage people and employees in adaptability work as a deliberate means for motivation and increased effectiveness in the face of accelerating change and increased competition.