Innovation Can’t be “Managed”

by | Apr 24, 2024 | Blog | 0 comments

During my 47 years in the creativity, innovation, and organizational development business, I have only seen a few formal systems for “managing” innovation that have actually worked.

Think about it, even if you are the leader in your organization, you have absolutely no ability to make people come up with creative ideas. You can train them to follow company procedures and established practices, you can train them in Creative Problem-Solving methods, like I do, but you can’t make them BE creative.

With the best intentions, I have seen organizations mandate monthly brainstorming sessions that produce little results.

I have seen company-wide design thinking initiatives that begin with great fanfare but do not deliver. I have seen elaborate idea collection systems that hardly anyone accesses. I have met well-meaning corporate innovation officers who are doing their best to encourage innovation in their organizations seeing only moderate success. I have even spent time in elaborately equipped, yet hardly used, corporate innovation labs. What was missing here?

Answer: The air was not right.

The biologist and author Lewis Thomas wrote that scientific discovery,“…cannot be prearranged in any precise way; the minds cannot be lined up in tidy rows and given directions from printed sheets. You cannot get it done by instructing each mind to make this or that piece for central committees to fit with the pieces made by the other instructed minds. It does not work this way. What it needs is for the air to be made right.“

Lewis continued,

“If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put them together with other bees and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come in its own season, like pure honey.”

What happens when you make the air right? The Mazda story

Let’s go to the late 1980’s. The company is Mazda Motor Manufacturing, USA in Flat Rock, Michigan. Mazda was building its first manufacturing plant in the United States.

Mazda entered the US with a strong intention for the type of workplace they would create. They wanted to create a culture that deliberately fostered continuous improvement or “Kaizen.”

Mazda instituted a rigorous training program and designed an environment to activate this culture of continuous improvement. All employees were trained in the following skill sets: Automobile Manufacturing, Total Quality Management, Team Work, Interpersonal Problem Solving, and Continuous Process Improvement. Mazda sought out the most up-to-date quality tools and methods that were available. Together, education on these topics created a critical skill set that would set the stage for “making the air right.”

But there was something missing; creative thinking.

In the fall of 1986, I got a phone call from Ken Kumiega, the director of training and development at this new Mazda plant. Ken asked me to design a Creative Problem-Solving training program for the 3500 employees at the new plant.

And that is what we did. In addition to the technical, team, and quality-focused tools the employees were learning, they also learned Creative Problem-Solving. They learned how to ask creative questions, to generate ideas in groups, to evaluate ideas effectively, and to develop plans to get their ideas into action.

These skills were then made a part of an organizational environment that made a conscious commitment to improve, created a mistakes friendly attitude and valued employee’s insights.

Once an organization has developed the skills, environment, and leadership behaviors to support a culture of innovation, then it is ready to apply those skills. This application must be focused and provide real added value to the organization. Solving relevant problems that the organization is facing is a perfect example of this type of skill application.

Typically at that time, a large-scale plant startup would be delayed three to nine months from its initial goal for production, due to unforeseen changes, shortages of materials or lack of detailed planning.

At Mazda’s Flat Rock plant, the first car was projected to come off of the assembly line on September 1, 1987.

And that is exactly when the first car came off the line.

Right on schedule!

With all 3500 employees trained in these critical skills, the plant came up to speed faster. Coming up to speed means that production of salable cars could begin.

Why is this such a big deal?

Because Mazda made the air right, they made sixty million dollars that typically could have been lost.

You will find more detail about the Mazda story and the formula for making the air right that Ken Kumiega and I developed on page 115 in my latest book, Solve the REAL Problem.

Want to learn more about how to “make the air right”?

Solve the Real Problem Webinar

Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | 12:00 to 1:00 PM EST

How a box inspired a four trillion-dollar industry

One way is to Solve the “REAL” problem.

99% percent of the time what we THINK is the problem is actually NOT the problem.

Why? We have been taught to find answers to problems, not to question the problem itself.

However, research has shown that investing even five minutes redefining a problem produces better solutions than those developed without problem clarification.


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Through a series of structured learning experiences, you will learn to become deliberately creative and build your skills to lead innovation teams in your organization. You will be instructed by Dr. Roger Firestien who has presented programs on innovation to over 600 organizations around the world including: fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, universities, associations and religious institutions.