Updated: Wed, 01/23/2013 - 01:10

On your mark. Get set. Innovate.

special photo - Suzanne Barnett
special photo - Suzanne Barnett
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Imagine this scene. A mid-sized company recognizes it is seriously falling behind the competition. New ideas for products and delivery mechanisms have not been forthcoming and sales are dropping rapidly. They are in trouble — big trouble. So the firm’s CEO calls an emergency meeting of the management team. She gives the group the bad news and then exclaims, “We are not going to leave this meeting until we come up with something innovative!”

That sounds pretty silly, right? It’s hard to believe, but I actually participated in a forced innovation session similar to the one just described. As you can imagine, whatever innovative ideas or creativity there had been in the room before quickly flew out the window.

What the CEO did not understand is that innovation is a process not an activity. A culture of innovation must be deliberately nurtured and given time to grow. Most business owners and managers instinctively know creativity and innovation can lead to the transformation of a business.

It takes courage and vision to leave the comfortable methods of the past and step out into something new, but that cannot happen if leaders are not aware of the process necessary to get there.

Teresa Amabile, Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, has conducted research into the creative process as it relates to business. She has identified key stages in the innovation and creative process: preparation, incubation, illumination and execution. Recognizing and supporting these stages can help business leaders begin to move toward building a culture of innovation within their firms.

Preparation is the first stage and the one in which an individual or a team dives into a problem. It’s when information gathering occurs. If a team is working together, many times roles are defined for the team members, tasks are assigned or areas of special interest are adopted.

The creative process can stall or appear to be stalled at this stage when ideas bring forth a lot of possibilities but there are no immediate insights into the problem.

The second stage is incubation. Sometimes it looks like the problem has been forgotten or is on the back burner when, in fact, it is not. People are thinking it over, writing down ideas on cocktail napkins, having ideas occur to them while focusing on other tasks.

Illumination is the third stage. This occurs when the mind has had enough time to come up with that “aha” moment. Teams feel the need to reform because the problem has gelled and a spontaneous interchange of thoughts can bring forth an idea that no one could articulate alone.

The fourth and final stage is execution. This one separates creativity from successful innovation. It requires action, persistence and the ability to create change coalitions while marketing the idea to skeptical people. This is when leadership can be of most support.

For business leaders who wish to promote a culture of innovation, understanding the creative process is not enough. They should provide the most prolific innovators with extra resources if they need them, eliminate processes or policies that get in the way of information gathering, allow the innovators time to play around with the ideas they come up with and commit to drive the best ideas through to implementation.

As I mentioned earlier, it takes courage to move an organization from the familiar to the unfamiliar. The creative process, once understood, can help business leaders move their firms to a new level of innovation and competitiveness.

That understanding coupled with the commitment to support it through to execution is the key to breakthrough business practices.

Suzanne Barnett is the south Georgia director of the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center.

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