``Innovation'' is something every company wants. But not many managers know how to stimulate and nurture it. The key is fostering the imagination and creativity of all employees, according to an expert on the subject, Ken Robinson.
Part of the problem is that most of us, from the chief executive officer to the cleaning person, take imagination for granted and ``ignore its power,'' Robinson said in the keynote speech March 11 at the Plastics News Executive Forum in Tampa.
Headlines blare about global warming and a coming crisis in natural resources.
``I think there's another kind of crisis, which is not a crisis of resources, but a crisis of human resources,'' he said. ``I believe passionately that most people have no idea of what they're really capable of doing, no real idea of their own talents.''
The goal should be setting up an organization where people regularly come up with new ideas that lead to innovation, he said.
Robinson suggested several ways that management can foster divergent thinking, which is the ability to see lots of alternative solutions to a problem. Unlock creativity by finding out what your employees - and you - really like to do, he said. It can be something beyond work, like a hobby.
``You don't have innovation without stimulating the imagination of the people in the organization,'' he said.
Another way to get the juices flowing is bringing together a team that includes people of different ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds to focus on a specific challenge. Such a move breaks up engrained habits. Robinson said General Electric Co. and Google Inc. both have been successful using collaborative teams.
Unfortunately, he said, companies often divide the workforce into two groups, ``the creatives'' and ``the suits.'' Truly innovative companies hunt for creativity from every single employee.
``You cannot have an innovative organization that starves the imagination of its people. It's a bit like saying we want to win the Olympic Games, but we're not going to exercise,'' he said.
Robinson, a British expert on education, creativity and innovation who now lives in Los Angeles, mixed wry humor with a serious message.
He is professor emeritus at the University of Warwick in England. He led a national commission in England on creativity, education and the economy, and has worked with foreign governments, large companies and cultural organizations around the world. In 2003, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to the arts.
Robinson said creativity is more important than ever, in a world undergoing major changes in business and shifts in social issues. But formal education is not doing the job.
``Most people think they're not creative, and I believe one of the big problems is the way we educate people,'' he said.
People have been educated for a different age, Robinson said.
Studies have shown that at kindergarten age, 98 percent of children score at a genius level for their capacity for divergent thinking to solve problems. That rapidly declines as they advance through school, until adults - ``the people you're hiring'' - are at just 2 percent.
In school, ``They've been told there's one answer and it's in the back of the book - and don't look, because that's cheating. And don't copy from anybody else, because that's cheating too,'' Robinson said.
``Outside the schools, it's called collaboration. Inside the schools, it's cheating.''