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Are you stifling your company’s best ideas? Featured

8:00pm EDT July 21, 2002

So you want your workplace to overflow with energy and ideas to help gather more customers and make more money?

It sounds great, but most companies just don’t practice creative thinking, says Richard Nichols, president and CEO of Inventure Place, which houses the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1989, Nichols retired in as manager of corporate engineering from Goodyear Tire & Rubber, where he directed engineering operations in 100 plants worldwide.

The lack of corporate creativity is one of the reasons Nichols recently launched the Institute for Inventive Thinking, a resource aimed at businesses. The Institute’s slogan, the “status quo just doesn’t do it anymore,” is meant to raise eyebrows. Small Business News talked with Nichols about his views on workplace creativity.

Why was the Institute for Inventive Thinking developed?

The one thing that was missing when I came back to this position is that we still had nothing for people in the workplace. This bothered me... I looked around and there were no resources for companies that want to learn how to think creatively.

So I got a blue-ribbon panel together, including David Tanner and Richard Tait. [Tanner is founder of the the DuPont Center for Creativity and Innovation and holder of 33 U.S. patents. Tait is a 22-year DuPont R&D veteran and owns a management consulting firm specializing in innovation].

We started developing this first as an overview of all of the resources that are out there all over the country. And then we wanted to develop our own program to give people enough take-away knowledge to take with them so they could start using some of this in a modified form.

You talk about both creative thinking and inventive thinking. What do you mean by those?

Inventive thinking is different than creative thinking because invention is applied creativity. All that they do with the creative thinking is tell you how to generate this fluffy stuff. They don’t tell you how you make something happen. And it’s not always only one program you use. Sometimes you use different tools you might use one tool for a while to get you to one level and then you bring in another tool to take you further.

 

How can managers encourage creative and inventive thinking?

What you need to do is get people to open up. One of the big problems in a lot of the company cultures out there is people can’t express themselves.

When they can’t express themselves, they forget about creativity. It sounds very simple, but if you come up with an off-the-wall idea and you get laughed under the table, or somebody says, ‘Oh, we tried that before and it was stupid,’ then you might never come up with another idea again.

 

Who are you aiming your program at?

Most of the participants are from R&D at corporations, but we’ve got some sessions where I’ve got a person from the U.S. Department of Labor, and I’ve got someone from the Patent and Trade office, and I’ve got people from non-profits. People are picking up and realizing that this is not just for technical people. It’s for anyone who wants to think differently.

 

Do companies get caught in not trying new things because people say, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.?

Ten years ago, the interest in corporate America was on two things: quality and productivity. If I had a work shop on quality or on productivity, it’d be standing room only.

People haven’t picked up on creativity. I say, ‘Look, I managed plants. I know the value of quality and productivity, but I also know I can have the most productive work force around, but if you don’t have the technology, who cares?’

The fact of the matter is in the last 30-plus years, 80 percent of the U.S. patents that were issued went to U.S. companies. It’s down to about 50 percent now. So at the same time as executives are concerned about quality and productivity, they downsized, and they’ve downsized a lot of engineers. Now we’re losing our edge on technology.

 

Are people too busy to be creative?

If they are, they’re not going to be busy for very long.

If you don’t have the new technology, you’re not going to make it... What I’m saying is people now are starting to sense, ‘Gee, perhaps we cut too far.’ I see people now are hiring more engineering. If you’re concerned about costs, why not get your people to work smarter?

Maybe you can develop more ideas more creatively, with fewer people if they’re working smarter, and they work smarter by giving them training to work creatively.

 

Are executives more receptive now to thinking creatively?

It’s much better now because they now understand the need. Why? They’ve made all of the improvements they can on quality and productivity, and their product still isn’t being received as well as they would expect. Now they know it’s technology.

 

What are the best ways managers can encourage creative thinking?

You have to make sure you have the right culture. It’s a simple five-part formula: First, keep them informed. Next, allow them to express themselves. Three is job satisfaction. Next is recognition—tell them how they’re doing on the job, good or bad. Five is motivation.

The expression and motivation are key. I’ll assure you they’re not going to be creative if they can’t express themselves and if they’re not motivated.

 

The Institute for Inventive Thinking offers two-day seminars once a month. For information on the seminars or the program in general, call (330) 849-6869.