Reprinted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Out of Our Minds by Ken Robinson. Copyright (c) 2011 John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved.

Creative cultures are supple

There is no single strategy for developing a culture of innovation.The internal challenge is to evolve structures andprocesses that are supple and responsive. Some companies setup specific innovation programs or labs. The benefit of thesespecial units is that they can focus on innovation without affectingthe rest of the organization. The disadvantage is thatthey may become detached from the general organizationalculture and rejected by it when they try to reintegrate. Like tissue rejection when organs from one body are transplantedinto another, antibodies from the host culture can attack thealien ideas until they are neutralized or destroyed. Anyonewho has been on an off-site training course might know thisfeeling when they go back to work on Monday and try to'cascade' what they have learnt.

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The processes of creativity can also be stifled by a sensethat ideas are unlikely to travel up the organization or willnot be taken seriously if they come from the wrong places.Innovation can be stifled by pressure from above to deliverresults over the wrong timescale: by demands for the wrongsort of accountability. Loosening hierarchies means thatthose who run the organizations should be accessible to thosewho work within them. The need for continuous innovationinvolves reviewing some of the most established practices inleadership.

The 2010 IBM study, Capitalizing on Complexity, found thatCEOs who are capitalizing on complexity have focused theirattention on three areas:
  • Embodying creative leadership: Creative leaders considerpreviously unheard-of ways to engage more activelywith customers and partners and employees.
  • Reinventing customer relationships: With the Internet,new channels and globalizing customers, organizationshave to rethink approaches to better understand, interactwith and serve their customers and citizens.
  • Building operating dexterity: Successful CEOs refashiontheir organizations, taking them faster, more flexibleand capable of using complexity to their advantage.
  • The report concluded that, "creative leaders expect to makedeeper business model changes to realize their strategies. To succeed, they take more calculated risks, find new ideas, andkeep innovating in how they lead and communicate."


    When John Chambers took over at CISCO Systems in 1995,the company had annual revenues of $1.2 billion. In fiscalyear 2009, they were estimated at $36 billion. Reflecting onthe growth of the company, and the challenges it now faces,he has had to rethink his own role as CEO.

    When he became CEO, Chambers thought of his leadershiprole with Cisco in three main ways: first, developinga vision and strategy of the company; second, building theteam to implement that strategy; and third, communicatingthe strategy within and beyond the company. After he hadbeen in the role for four or five years, he began to think differentlyabout his role as a leader. He began to focus especiallyon the company's culture. Great companies, he says, havegreat cultures. "A huge part of a leadership role is to drivethe culture of the company and to reinforce it." He has alsochanged his style of leadership away from command andcontrol to collaboration and teamwork. "It sounds easy todo, but it is hard, because you are trained that way in MBAschool, in law school. Around 80 to 90 percent of the job ishow we work together toward common goals, which requiresa different skill set."

    As at Pixar, IDEO and Google, the processes that drive theculture of innovation at Cisco are collaboration and delegation.Engineers, says Chambers, "are part business leaders,part artists, and you've got to know which hat they have on."He now sees the need for a fundamental change in ways ofworking "that may be really important to the future of businessin this country and the world." At Cisco, the emphasisis increasingly on collaborative teams, on cross sector groupsdrawn from sales, engineering, finance, legal, and other departments.

    "We're training leaders to think across silos. We now do that with 70 different teams in the company. So we'll havea sales leader go run engineering. A lawyer go and run businessdevelopment; a business development leader go run ourconsumer operations. We're going to train a generalist groupof leaders who know how to learn and operate in collaborationteamwork. I think that's the future of leadership."14

    Sir John Harvey Jones, the former leader of ICI, the internationalchemicals company, made the same point in this way:

    "Every single person in business," he said "needs to acquirethe ability to change, the self-confidenceto learn new things and the capacity forhelicopter vision. The idea that we can winwith brilliant scientists and technologistsalone is absolute nonsense. It's breadth ofvision, the ability to understand all the influences at work, toflex between them and not be frightened of totally differentexperiences and viewpoints that hold the key. We need everysingle pressure from business at the moment to make clearthat the specialist who cannot take the holistic view of thewhole scene is no use at all."

    This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.