Skip to main content
Management in Practice

Nineteen Ways to Boost Innovation in Your Company

Bureaucracy can stifle creativity. But organizations need timelines, rules, and hierarchies to direct and nurture productive innovation. Here are nineteen ideas for leveraging the creative capabilities in your workforce, as tried and tested by leaders in the field.

During the Managing Creative Talent session at the Business + Society conference, leaders from four very different creative organizations suggested ways to encourage the development of valuable new ideas. They were Beth Axelrod ’89, senior vice president of human resources at eBay, Laura Walker ’87, president and CEO of New York Public Radio, Jock Reynolds, Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, and Jeremy Eden ’86, co-founder and co-CEO of the consultancy Harvest Earnings. The session was moderated by James Baron, William S. Beinecke Professor of Management at Yale SOM and an expert on human resources.

On Process

  • Rapid iteration: “Fail fast. If it doesn’t work, move on to the next thing.”—Beth Axelrod
  • Provide the structure and constraints to focus innovation. New York Public Radio created teams for 100-day “Rapid Results” projects, and developed six pilots for new shows, $500,000 in new underwriting, and a new app.—Laura Walker
  • “Always iterate. Never stand still.” Get something on the air and then make it better, instead of waiting for it to be perfect.—Walker
  • Get new perspectives. “Part of what we’ve been doing is inviting other creative talent from across Yale University to come to our museum and participate with us,” by using artwork in their teaching.—Jock Reynolds
  • Focus on “small i” innovations from the people most familiar with a company’s products and processes. Heinz, a client, “decided to take seriously using the talent and creativity that’s really the most unused asset in any company, and that’s their people.” The improvements that were suggested were worth $250 million a year.—Jeremy Eden
  • Create a sense of urgency. “Use very short deadlines to focus people on these small innovations.”—Eden
  • Create metrics. Just the act of paying attention improves performance.—Eden

On Organization

  • When putting together project teams, less is more: “If there are more people than you can feed with two pizzas, you’ve got too many people on the team.”—Axelrod
  • A clear understanding of who makes the call on a new idea, “so that the innovation doesn’t wither on the vine.”—Axelrod
  • Hire well. “It is way better to have one great employee than two or three mediocre employees. We look for people who are really comfortable with ambiguity but at the same time have the ability to put structure around the process.”—Walker
  • “Create a culture that respects the creative struggle.” Recognize and accept creative ideas. According to one study, “our minds are actually biased against seeing creative solutions, because of the very nature of their novelty.”—Walker
  • Make a conscious effort to lower barriers to ideas. “There are a lot of human behaviors and corporate behaviors that get in the way” of people sharing useful ideas. “You have to take those behaviors very seriously.”—Eden
  • To avoid cross-departmental clashes, make sure that a project team agrees on the underlying set of facts before it starts trying to solve a problem.—Eden

On Leadership

  • “Openness and trust from leaders, to allow people to experiment and do new things.”—Axelrod
  • Respect for the core business. “It’s easy to become enamored of the bright, shiny innovation.”—Axelrod
  • Senior people need to act as “chief courage officer,” creating a “zone of protection” for ideas in their infancy.—Walker
  • Interact with staff where they work. “I do a lot of what I call walkaround management,” talking with the museum guards and custodial staff who have the most direct impact on the experience of visitors.—Reynolds
  • Invest in young leaders. “We’re in the business of training, identifying leadership potential, and we’re as proud as ever when our students move up to become leaders in their field.”—Reynolds
  • Be ready for fast decision making. “There is nothing that kills innovation faster than slow, bureaucratic, PowerPoint-driven, long-meeting, decision-making processes.”—Eden

Watch the discussion.