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How to foster an innovative and creative company culture, by former Disney innovation expert

Article-How to foster an innovative and creative company culture, by former Disney innovation expert

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Most successful food brands all possess one thing: an innovative and creative workforce. To foster a culture of innovation and creativity, companies should focus on developing several key employee attributes, former Disney innovation expert says.

Innovation and out-the-box thinking equals success

In the highly competitive and fast-paced global food and beverage industry, it is the most innovative and creative brands and products that reap the greatest success.

First launched in 1958 by Japan-based manufacturer Nissin Foods, instant ramen noodles revolutionised the convenience and affordability of home-cooking by offering shelf-stable products that required only hot water for preparation. Almost 65 years later in 2022, the company reported a revenue of over HK$4.025 billion (approximately €‎470 million) – a testament to the brand’s global popularity and success.

One of the most iconic food and beverage brands in the world, Coca-Cola has a brand value of over €‎97 billion and a suite of products that continue to stand the test of time, regularly achieving record sales worldwide. The brand’s success is largely due to its pioneering and creative marketing and global expansion strategies, which have built strong brand loyalty, awareness, and integrity.

While the benefits of an innovative and creative company culture are clear, many brands struggle to foster their own. According to a McKinsey survey, 94% of executives are dissatisfied with the performance of their company where innovation is concerned.

It’s not money, time, regulation, or resources … it’s you!

Money, time, regulation, and resources are a handful of the factors most commonly cited as barriers to innovation within companies. However, more times than not, it is the mentality of the workforce that is the main, unidentified stumbling block to innovation, former head of innovation and creativity at Disney Duncan Wardle said, speaking at IFT First in July.

Research conducted by Gartner found the top three perceived barriers to innovation within companies to be risk-aversion (46%), an inability to measure innovation impact (41%), and a lack of skilled employees (41%).

“We often think that material things are the blockers of innovation but might be surprised to learn that the thing that’s blocking innovation is in fact us,” he said.

According to Wardle, a handful of key attributes and behaviours exist that can help brands build innovation and creativity into their DNA. These include collaboration, playfulness, mindfulness, and diversity.

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Flexing the creative muscle

Creativity is at the heart of innovation and business growth. According to Wardle, creativity is “the habit of continually doing things in new ways to make a positive difference in our working lives”.

A company's culture can either foster or stifle creativity in its workforce. Of companies who score in the top quartile on creativity, 67% achieve above-average organic revenue growth and 70% above-average total return to shareholders, McKinsey data shows.

Western education and business institutions, which are often highly regimented and bureaucratic, are engines of reductive thinking and blockers of innate human creativity, Wardle said.

“Many [companies] today are killing the most employable skillsets of the next decade – creativity, intuition, curiosity, imagination.”

To foster innovation in the workforce, brands must establish cultures and procedures that continually nurture and encourage, rather than kill, creative thought.

Google, regularly ranked as one of the world’s most innovative companies, encourages employees to dedicate one fifth of their working hours to pursue personal, self-led passion projects or creative ideas that may or may not be linked to their day-to-day job responsibilities. This policy has been highly successful in fostering a culture of innovation and has led to the launch of various products such as Gmail and Google News, the company claims.

“Creativity is a muscle – the longer you use it, the stronger it gets,” Wardle said.

Nurture collaboration and playfulness

Innovation thrives in environments that foster collaboration. Shifting from a mindset of "my project" to "our project" can exponentially enhance creative potential and deliver out-of-the-box solutions to persistent problems, Wardle said.

“Don’t let ‘no, because’ be the first words out of your mouth when someone is coming at you with a new idea. Practise replacing ‘no, because’ with ‘yes, and’.”

Collaboration and playfulness are crucial elements of the organisational culture of exceptionally innovative companies, according to one study published in the American Journal of Play. Openness to new ideas can open the door to untapped opportunities and foster a fail-fast culture within organisations, Wardle explained.

“Being playful at work allows you time to think and that is when good ideas come,” he said.

American frozen desert manufacturer Ben & Jerry’s is well-known for its playful and creative company culture and strategy. Ice cream products such as Chunky Monkey, Peace Pops, and Phish Food, branded in colourful and humorous packaging, reflect the company’s unique and light-hearted product development and marketing approach, which has led the brand to become a world leader in the sector.

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Break free from usual “rivers of thinking”

A lack of time and space to think is the number one barrier to innovation at work for many professionals, according to Wardle.

“Around 87% of the brain is subconscious, meaning most [people] don’t even have access to their playful and creative brain space,” he said.

The brain is most creative in its alpha state, characterised by open, thoughtful, and dreamy thinking. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal shows that higher alpha brain wave activity correlates with an increased ability to come up with less obvious or well-known ideas. Occupying the same patterns of thought, or “rivers of thinking”, block creative thought and hinder innovation, Wardle explained.

“Being creative and challenging yourself to get outside your river of thinking is a simple, powerful, and fun way to [foster] innovation.”

Think about the consumer first   

It is a commonly accepted fact that diverse teams are conducive to profitability. McKinsey research shows that companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity in their executive teams are 36% more likely to have above-average profitability compared to companies in the bottom quartile.

Introducing perspectives that differ from the norm can spark unconventional ideas and foster a culture creativity and innovation in the workplace, Wardle said.

“If someone doesn’t look like you, they don’t think like you, and they can help you think differently.”

According to Wardle, many brands fail to design innovative products and solutions because they focus on maximising profitability rather than solving the biggest consumer pain points.  

“Stop asking ‘how might we make more money’ and ask, ‘how we might better serve the consumer’,” he said.