RISMEDIA, July 15, 2009-The recession is in full swing, and companies everywhere are feeling the pain. Yours is likely no exception. Shrinking budgets, sweeping layoffs, and a smothering malaise that’s settled over your workforce make it hard to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes, even the most optimistic leader finds him or herself wondering, Is there an end to this particular tunnel? Sure there is, says Kimberly Douglas, but you’re going to have to excavate it yourself-and you’re going to have to light your own way.
“Innovation is the only ticket out of this recession,” asserts Douglas, author of The Firefly Effect: Build Teams That Capture Creativity and Catapult Results (Wiley, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-470-43832-9, $24.95). “I believe this is true for America as a whole and it’s certainly true for the individual organizations that make up our nation.
“I’m not just talking about product development,” she clarifies. “I’m talking about new services, business processes, means of communication, and methods of collaboration. Companies that can churn out innovative ideas-good, workable innovative ideas-will be able to adapt to the new realities we face. Those that can’t, won’t.”
The heart of innovation, of course, is people working together eagerly, intelligently, and productively. When this synergy happens, ideas pour forth like water from a newly tapped underground spring-or, as Douglas puts it, like fireflies showing up en masse at dusk. Innovation is all about good teamwork. It’s really that simple. And it’s what The Firefly Effect is all about.
Douglas teaches leaders how to discover and apply creativity within their own teams to get results. She uses a firefly metaphor-the image of children working together to catch these glowing creatures-to illustrate how successful teams use their individual talents collectively to focus on critical business challenges.
“If you’re like many leaders, you have a group of shell-shocked lay-off ‘survivors’ who are wandering around lost in a state of general worry and angst about the economy,” she says. “You can use innovation principles to direct their anxious energy toward solving critical problems for the company. It helps them; it helps you; it helps everyone.”
So how can you deliberately create a more innovative culture-call it “Operation Firefly”-at your company? While you’d have to read the book to get the complete picture, Douglas offers the following tips to help you get started:
· Understand the (non-flashy) new role of leadership. In America as well as in the rest of the world, the focus is moving toward such “right-brained” skills and talents as creativity, empathy, intuition, and the ability to link seemingly unrelated objects and events into something new and different. That means leaders must a) create and maintain a safe, respectful environment where individual creativity can emerge to its fullest potential, and b) focus that creative energy in the right direction based upon the core purpose of the team and the targeted goals.
· Search for untapped talent on your team. Frankly, it is in our individual and corporate nature to try to deal with differences by eliminating them. However, in the same way that what look like plain old fireflies are actually comprised of more than 2,000 known species, employees are far more complex and unique than they might appear at first glance. Unearthing the hidden talents your employees possess-Douglas recommends the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, which she discovered during her job as organization effectiveness manager for Coca-Cola-is the first step toward using these areas of hidden development to your team’s advantage.
· Encourage creative abrasion… but swat ferocious fireflies. Are you uncomfortable with conflict in the workplace? Don’t be. Conflict is natural, expected, and, because it’s a sign of diverse thinking on your team, even desirable. Douglas calls productive conflict “creative abrasion.” However, she asserts, leaders must take steps to keep the conflict focused on the issues and not let team members direct their ire at one another personally. And you must deal with what she calls ferocious fireflies: toxic, manipulative employees who gain the trust of others on the team only to viciously turn on them later.
· Deal with other, more insidious “trust busters,” too. In all her years of working with teams, Douglas says she consistently sees (besides the presence of a ferocious firefly) three other problematic behaviors that damage or limit trust. They are: 1) a refusal to share personal information; 2) sarcasm disguised as humor; and 3) one or more disengaged members of the team.
· Make sure quieter fireflies have a chance to glow. You’ve no doubt noticed that certain people naturally dominate the discussion while others tend to hang back and go with the flow. Problem is, if your big talkers and “star employees” are always allowed to verbally run over the quieter/less visible members of your team, the same ideas and solutions will always get implemented. Douglas says that some simple tricks can prevent extroverts from taking over and introverts (who may have some brilliant ideas under their hats) from getting overlooked.
· Don’t let team leaders keep too tight a lid on the jar. Just as fireflies’ lights fade when they’re held captive, a leader who dominates and controls his or her team will squelch creativity. If you’re the leader, you must take deliberate steps not to do this. For instance, don’t sit at the head of the table. Use positive reinforcement (both verbally and nonverbally). Don’t get into a prolonged conversation with only one or two other team members. If you’re not very, very careful, you’ll end up biasing the people in the room by virtue of your position of power.
· Make meetings fun, exciting, and inviting. For instance, you might bring a creativity toy or two-something interesting enough to engage someone’s hands but not so fascinating that it distracts them from the reason for the meeting. Use a whiteboard rather than the dreaded flipchart. And try techniques like mind-mapping (for left-brain thinkers) or brain-writing (for right-brain thinkers) to get creativity flowing.
· Shine the light of accountability on your team. Even the most energetic, productive meeting means nothing if people don’t follow up the decisions they reach with action. As a team, create a common picture of what personal accountability looks like. Then, delegate very specific assignments to very specific people. Finally, set a date for a follow-up meeting in which everyone must report on whether they fulfilled their commitments, and if not, why not.
· From time to time, escape the office for a creative excursion. When you really need to tap into your team’s creative talents and boost their ability to work together, you need to get offsite. Yes, even in-in fact, especially in-these stressful times. And no, Douglas is not talking about the stereotypical ropes course or fall-backwards-into-a-teammate’s-arms trust building exercise. She means excursions that truly create lifelong lessons and connections you can immediately apply to improve your performance as a team and a business unit.
After reading this advice, you may be thinking, Okay, all this talk of toys and trips to the zoo is fine for other companies or maybe other departments, but certainly not for my team. We’re struggling to stay alive. We just don’t have time for innovation.
Douglas says you’re absolutely wrong.
“Innovation is everyone’s job now,” she asserts. “It’s no longer the purview of R&D or marketing. That no longer makes good business sense.
“You must make time for innovation,” she adds. “At the very least you can devote one hour of team time a week to a truly innovative brainstorming session. Even if you don’t see immediately usable outcomes, there is unmistakable value in keeping people engaged in the excitement of their work. All it takes is for one person to have a bright idea and pass it on to others-like the spark of a firefly that magically illuminates a dark night.”
Kimberly Douglas, SPHR, is president of FireFly Facilitation, Inc., a firm specializing in the design and facilitation of high-impact initiatives, including leadership team effectiveness and strategic planning. For more information, please visit www.FireFlyFacilitation.com.