Evangelizing innovation within a large company

Roughly nine months ago I started a new job, and have remarked (to myself and to others) about the ah-ha learning moments, both good and bad. In my first real foray outside of consulting, they are plentiful. One thing that has stood out is the difference in the sense of ownership at a corporation vs. professional services firm. And that is two-fold. First - in a corporate setting people feel more protective of their work and less open about sharing insights and learnings and goals. That is a broad stroke and generalization, but I come from a workplace where everyone was so busy that they were generally grateful to have others take interest and offer a helping hand in order to learn about a new subject, area, etc. I am lucky in that many at my new company have been very open to my inquiries of interest, but the culture of coffee chats and informational interviews isn't as well-ingrained in a place where you have your job laid out for the next year, compared to consulting where you are constantly interviewing for your next project.

 Second - my last role in consulting was in a small innovation and design firm that was allowed to operate somewhat autonomously within the larger mothership. We took pride in being the innovative ones, and as consultants we really saw ourselves as being the purveyors of innovation - you had to hire us to get the creative solutions. When I left, the firm was only just beginning to experiment with co-working models with client teams. Now in my new job (can it still be new nine months in?) I'm trying to tell and show employees that everyone and anyone can be innovative - it should be part of everyone's job, not just this "innovation services" team that sits off in the corporate venture arm. My team doesn't own innovation. If that were the case, there's little chance we would be able to make a scalable and lasting impact.

 So as part of this innovation evangelizing, I write a ~monthly "innovation tips and tools" blog post that is shared internally on the company intranet. I try to sneak in some more provocative things when possible, as I figure if not me, then who? Below is my most recent post, highlighting a new Freakonomics podcast series about creativity. More to come as the series progresses!


In my last post, I wrote about the importance of seeking experiences and interests outside of work in order to spark new ideas and come at problems from a different angle. In the human-centered design training bootcamps my team has been running with the Customer Experience team, seeking out "creative analogies" is one of the main tactics that we offer to serve as kindling for innovation. And in my past life as an innovation consultant, we would often plan specific activities and "field trips" for clients to get out of the office and see how things work in different industries or contexts. Yet these are just a few ways of sparking creativity or innovation - how do you actually become creative?

This is a question central to a new Freakonomics series on creativity. The following quote from the first episode in the series really stood out to me because we as a company are still learning how to best think and talk about innovation within the context of NYL:

 "Creativity is possible in all realms of human activity. If we define creativity as doing something novel that works, that is valuable in some way, it’s absolutely possible in everything that humans do." - Harvard Business School professor and psychologist Teresa Amabile

Though creativity and innovation are different concepts, here I want to use them somewhat interchangeably to show that innovation can happen in small ways, in any role. You don't have to be an Artist, with a capital A, to be creative. In the same way, you don't have to be in R&D or at a startup to be innovative. Sheila Davidson mentioned this in her recent innovation interview, noting that "for employees, acting on small ideas is innovation. If a person can think of a way to do their job better or solve a problem, they should raise it with their manager." Of course, innovation in marketing will look different than innovation in accounting (where some will point to Enron and say that innovation and creativity should play no role). Even still, just last week I got an email from CB Insights highlighting seven startups that are automating accounting and helping small businesses in particular manage their businesses more efficiently and effectively. Creativity will find its way to every nook and cranny of businesses.

The actor John Hodgman draws a line between interpretive arts (following a script as an actor, or a recipe as a chef), and creative arts, which he believes occupies a higher realm. Think stand-up comics, or chefs like Ferran Adrià, who are responsible either alone or in collaboration for creating something completely new out of nothing. On the El Bulli website, where Adrià gives a history of the famous restaurant, he notes that a major turning point for his team was being told "creativity means not copying." They realized that they needed to use major cook books less, and try to find an identity of their own using both traditional and new techniques.

Here I would argue that there is and should be a place for both interpretive innovation and creative innovation at New York Life. We need to find ways to do something better while still operating within the confines of a project plan. Yet there is also a big opportunity to try something completely new - and for 2019 we encourage you to find small ways in which you can create and innovate in ways that aren't merely an interpretation of a script. Take advantage of down time towards the end of the year (hopefully you have some) and let the creative juices flow!

 Freakonomics Podcast: How to Be Creative