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Andrew Carey: how well do you support and manage creative people?

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"Must-ask" questions to determine how well your organization is doing.

Andrew Carey is a UK-based management author and the publisher of Triarchy Press Ltd. He writes here about staying ahead in the innovation race.

There are ten key areas that you need to consider when assessing how well your organization manages and encourages innovation. These areas include: your people, the culture of the organization, rewards and recognition, performance management and competencies. Of these, the fundamental area is people. Unless you are supporting and managing creative and innovative people in your organization effectively, none of the other areas will make any significant difference.

Here, then, are six "must-ask" questions which will enable senior executives to determine how well your organization is doing in this area. Depending on your job role and the size of your business, you will probably need to get the answers to at least some of these questions from HR staff, line managers and others.

In each case, the follow-up questions that are suggested beneath the main question should be used for verification. This is not to suggest that people will deliberately answer dishonestly. However, when we are asked a question that looks for the answer "Yes", it is human nature to give that answer if we possibly can. The follow-up questions challenge vague and potentially unreliable answers by looking for detail, examples and specific data.

  • Do you (i.e. does your organization) know which employees are the most creative and innovative? How does it know? How does it store and use this information?
  • Do your most creative and innovative people consider that they receive appropriate recognition by the organization? How do you know the answer to that question? How often do you ask them?
  • Do you distinguish between creative people and innovative people in your organization? If so, how?
  • Do you distinguish between creative/innovative people and the rest whose job it is to maintain stable conditions? If so, how? And what do people say about the distinction? (For example, are your creative people labelled "difficult" or are the others labelled "boring"?)
  • When recruiting creative and innovative people, do you use specially designed selection methods? What are they? When they were last updated?
  • Do you ensure that your creative and innovative people are deployed in work that makes best use of their talents? Who ensures that happens? How do they do it?

Some of these questions touch on other areas of organizational innovation management like performance management and the organizational culture. However, they will all serve to give a very clear indication of your organization’s overall approach to creativity and innovation.

"The organization’s culture is, by definition, intangible and, therefore, hard to measure."

And if the answer to two or more of these questions is "no" or "don’t know", then your organization will be falling behind in the innovation race.

Do you sustain and develop a culture of creativity and innovation?

Here we look at the organization’s culture and, specifically, how well you sustain and develop an innovative culture.

The organization’s culture is, by definition, intangible and, therefore, hard to measure. These seven "must-ask" questions will help to give senior executives a sense of the culture, but it will be necessary to ask as many people as possible from different departments or work processes and at different levels of seniority in the organization.

As pointed out above, the follow-up questions that are suggested beneath the main question should be used to encourage respondents to talk more widely about their experience. The purpose of these questions is not to elicit a simple "yes" or "no" but to invite a more wide-ranging discussion about what it’s like to work in the organization. Again, the follow-up questions challenge vague and potentially unreliable answers.

  • Does your organization culture welcome creative and innovative people? How, specifically, does it do so? Does it check whether they feel welcomed?
  • Does your organization have a strategy for renewing its creative talent-base without losing those creative people that it wants to retain? What is that strategy?
  • Do your organization’s systems and controls for checking people’s performance or the quality and accuracy of their work encourage innovation and creativity?
  • Is the language of innovation spoken naturally across the whole organization, not just in R&D functions? How is innovation encouraged in areas like Finance and Accounting?
  • Is the subject of innovation referred to in official organization publications (e.g. annual report, list of organization values, etc.)?
  • Does your organization match its spoken support of innovation in practice? What rewards are there for innovation and creativity? How are innovative ideas evaluated? What proportion of them are ultimately implemented?
  • Does you organization tolerate mavericks who challenge convention and the status quo?

All of these questions touch, in some sense, on the people issues. However, their principal focus is on the overall culture rather than on specific policies. To answer culture-related questions accurately, it may be necessary to conduct employee culture surveys.

If the answer to two or more of the above questions is generally negative, then you need to look again at your organization’s overall approach to innovation.

October 2011.