Every child is a creative wonder. Adults often marvel at the free time children have to play and daydream. Parents lament the fleeting youth of their kids, as we know that cultural norms, the structures of education, and the workplace will hone them to be productive and task oriented. Unless they choose a so-called “creative” career, they will be left little free time to exercise that which makes us quintessentially human: our creative and flexible brains.
Corporations segregate their most creative people into departments like Product Innovation, Marketing, Graphic Arts, and Design. Some companies go further and script what each one of these functions does in a manner that would make Fredrick Winslow Taylor proud. These type of structures are excellent for delivering efficiency, ROI, and throughput. Yet, companies that take this approach often struggle with the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environment. Recall companies like Circuit City, TWA, AOL, and RCA. Think suggestion box, floppy disks, and telephone booths; all obsolete.
Today the most innovative companies include the likes of Facebook, CVS Health, Alphabet (Google), Apple, UBER, Southwest Airlines, and Taco Bell. Some of the best ideas from these companies originated with employees, who were given the space and opportunity to contribute. At Sun Products, we nurture employee creativity with what we call “Passion Projects.” Each team member is free to find a project or projects about which they are passionate. As additional resources are needed, the project is elevated throughout the organization. Each of these ideas is then compared to our key strategic objectives (one of which is innovation) and if it is a fit, then it is acted upon.
Locally, my team takes this concept even further to get the customer involved with an “Engagement Plan.” This is a forward looking outline of topics that hold the interest of the employee and the customer. The “Engagement Plan” is about finding the sweet spot in our relationship with the customer to help them deliver better results. When team members select projects to be part of their plan, they have a sense of ownership, pride, and passion which can’t be replicated by assigning projects.
I am often asked, “How do you find the time to work on these Passion Projects or Engagement Plans?” Often the volume of work feels overwhelming and planning at times feels like a luxury; however, it starts with small steps and some momentum. Leaders must provide an environment in which team members can find the space to explore and contribute. Some companies do this through the formal goal setting process. I like to be less scripted, to give individuals a way to find themselves at work, and then tie it back to what is important.
Companies like Google were known for their 20% time, where they dedicated 20% of their time to self-directed projects to help create a pool of innovation. While 20% may be excessive in the traditional CPG world, I start with 15 minutes and some thought starters. We incorporate this into our weekly one-on-one connections with my team. I encourage, and help them dream, when needed. One of my team members started providing a weekly business “fun fact” which was added onto information sent both to our internal and external customers. Some of these facts were “nice to know” and led nowhere. Others led to asking questions, getting engaged, and spreading this information across our entire organization and across multiple levels of our key retailer.
Fifteen minutes of thought was all it took to move some key information across an entire national sales and marketing group and into key decision makers with our customer. Most newsletters, e-mail blasts, conversations, and presentations wouldn’t be that effective. What can you do with 15 minutes?
*Team Lead Shopper Solutions & Category Development, Walmart & Sam’s Club – Sun Products
*Title and company of the author reflect their position at the time article was written.
The opinions expressed here by guest bloggers are their own, not necessarily those of Stout Executive Search.