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4 Lessons for Encouraging Innovation

This weekend I read a few really interesting articles on the Destiny USA project in my hometown of Syracuse. Destiny USA was a plan to revive the Syracuse economy through an expansive plan to build a mall that rivals the Mall of America. At various points, Destiny USA would have a 65-acre glass enclosed park and golf course designed by Arnold Palmer, and a 50,000 room hotel modeled after a Tuscan Village called “Hill Town.” There were dozens of other ideas, all just as lavish and many of them with the strategy to find creative ways to place the costs on the backs of taxpayers. I did a quick web search for some photos and put together a photo album at the end of the post, if you wanted to see some photos of the Destiny USA project. You can also check out a video here.

None of the ideas ever came to fruition, and the expansion of Destiny USA has essentially come to a halt, minus some new stores and restaurants. One of the interesting parts of the article was describing the President of the development company, Pyramid, Inc., Bob Congel, technique of “clear-channeling.” The concept was that no idea was not to be explored during a meeting, and everyone had to provide at least one positive piece of feedback about the idea.

The Syracuse Post Standard interviewed Marc Malfitano, once an executive at Destiny USA:

Under clear-channeling, anyone who objected to any idea risked being fired, Malfitano said. He tried at least once and was rebuked, he said. In the end, the process hindered clear thinking, he said. “It was an impediment to dealing with real issues,” he said. “If someone put an idea on the table, no matter how unreasonable or outlandish, everybody had to say good things about it.” He said he knew of two people who were fired for not following the rules of clear-channeling.

“These ideas would come out of the sky,” Malfitano said of the meetings, where lunch was often catered around a long table surrounded by white boards and the latest artist’s renderings. “It would feel like every day there was another big idea.”

I’ll let you explore a little bit more of the history of Destiny USA, but what do you think about this idea of “clear-channeling?” In this instance, clearly the idea failed, but does anyone have situations where maybe it has worked? To me, the concept of “clear-channeling,” is an example of how easily an attempt to be creative and innovative can lead to group think and poor decision making.

What are some ways you encourage innovation? Some ways I have found to work are:

Set Strategic Direction

I’ve always found it useful in meetings where as a team a problem is identified, and then action items are delegated out to smaller teams to tackle challenges. It’s a good way to get people working together who typically don’t interact, build up team trust, and be placed on a different kind of project. Setting strategic direction is a challenge, a manager cannot be to small or broad in scope – they need to find the right balance.

Provide Time for Individual Reflection

Once teams are set to tackle a problem, time is needed for each individual to reflect and think of some ideas on their own. Everyone should spend some time to think of some innovative ideas to bring to the table, then as a team, filter through the best ideas to help solve a problem.

Listen Patiently

Let people express their ideas, don’t interject and create a welcoming environment to share information. Although the idea could be off base, the stage needs to be set that all thoughts are welcome. Unlike Destiny USA, I don’t think a mandatory compliment about the idea is always needed. Sometimes ideas morph into new ones, build on others and develop into a great solution for the organization.

Provide Constructive Feedback

I’ve found many times that ideas and comments quickly get off scope. Lots of feedback is needed to keep people focused, this is why sometimes setting the scope as a team first is so important. Asking pointed questions is important to really think through the implications of a new initiative or idea.

Encouraging innovation is always a challenge – what are some ways you have done this at your agency? Do you have a “clear-channeling” approach during meetings? Do you have a structure or do you prefer ideas to develop organically?

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Corey McCarren

The video was a little bit painful to watch lol. I don’t like it when people can’t take criticism. Open communication is positive and negative, and doesn’t need to be taken personally. I agree that it’s good for managers to point out a good thing about every idea to encourage the ideas to keep flowing, but it’s still important to criticize ideas as well.

Jay Johnson

That sounds like a horrible framework. Oops, I guess I would have been fired. 🙂

But seriously, being in an environment where you can’t critisize ideas would result in something like The Emporer’s New Clothes. A better option would be to take a lesson from improv theater. Instead of saying “Yes, but” say “Yes, and.” This way ideas don’t get squashed, but concerns can still still voiced.

For example: “Yes that super mall idea sounds great, but how are you going to pay for it?” could be phased as “Yes that’s a good idea, and it will require innovative thinking from us all to fund a project like that.”

Pat Fiorenza

Thanks for the comments! Interesting you mentioned improv – my cousin teaches an improv class and speaks a lot on conflict mediation/resolution – he always brings in lessons learned from improv. I really liked your example below – good way to rephrase the thought.

Carol Davison

They fired those with the honor, courage and commitment to point out where they were making errors? Thank God the project tanked. Imagine how off specification, cost and time they would be.

I appreciate what your trying to say T Jay, but having to say “yes and” when “the emporer is naked! is needed is just ridiculous.