A culture of innovation at MailChimp

Fast Company gives some insights into how the culture at MailChimp fosters constant, pervasive creativity and innovation.

“We provide an environment that allows for, and encourages, acting on spontaneous creativity,” says [cofounder Dan] Kurzius. When employees feel safe sharing their new ideas–no matter how goofy–and have the freedom to pursue them, good things ultimately arise. “I plant the seed and water it and then stand back and watch it grow,” he says. “Outside of being accountable to our customers, the less formality, the better.”

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Innovation and observation

How often does a truly innovative product or service come from asking people what they need? Or is it more often the case that innovation happens when we observe people?

Michael Fruhling has some observations about the value of observing your customers to learn about their unmet needs:

My point is that many categories remain ripe for innovation – both young and even relatively mature ones. The most attractive opportunities will go to those individuals and companies who are savvy enough to recognize need-gaps revealed through observation of adaptive customer behaviors. Are you getting out from behind your desk to learn about your customers’ potential needs?

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What is innovation, anyway?

The words innovation and innovate come to us from the Latin innovāre, or “to renew.” So, according to most dictionaries, innovation means “something new or different,” or “the act of creating something new or different.”

However, for most businesses, merely being new or different is not enough. A product, service, or process can be new or different, but if it’s not in some way better than existing products, services, or processes, then what’s the point?

So what we’re looking for are ideas that are new and different that make some sort of improvement on things. In their book Leading Innovation: Creating Workplaces Where People Excel So Organizations Thrive, Brian McDermott and Gerry Sexton define innovation as the value-added application of a creative idea.

What does it mean to add value? In purely monetary terms, you can add value by reducing money going out or increasing money coming in. By that measure, any creative idea that you can use to cut costs or increase revenue is an innovation.

This fits with the definition of innovation that Apple Computer’s Advanced Technology Group used, according to Dave Yost:

An innovative product is one that makes a leap in the benefits-to-costs ratio in some area of endeavor.

Another way of putting this is that an innovation lowers the costs and/or increases the benefits of a task. A wildly successful innovation increases the benefits-to-costs ratio to such an extent that it enables you to do something it seemed you couldn’t do at all before or didn’t even know you wanted to do.

Lower the cost. Increase the benefits. That’s innovation.

But remember that you can add value (lower costs, increase benefits) in non-monetary ways, too. For example, you can add value by changing the emotional interaction people have with a product, service, or process.

You can add fun. See “The World’s Deepest Bin” and “Piano Staircase” over at www.thefuntheory.com to see how someone added fun—and value—to the rather mundane activities of throwing away trash and using the stairs.

You can focus on esthetics. An essential part of Apple’s success is their obsessive focus on the esthetics of their products, and people love the way their iPhones, iPods, iPads, etc. look. Cirque du Soleil took the basic idea of the circus and incorporated the esthetic sensibilities of theater, changing how their audiences feel about the experience.

Bottom line: Innovation is using creativity to add value. And there are myriad kinds of value you can add.

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New uses for old inventions

Ceci n'est pas une amooule

So, some egg-headed bureaucrats in the EU decided that incandescent light bulbs are EEEEVIL™ and must be banned. Never mind that many people prefer incandescent bulbs over compact fluorescent bulbs (those odd-looking ones that Mark Steyn has dubbed “curly-fry” light bulbs). The bureaucrats know better. Incandescent light bulbs are hereby banned.

Enter German businessman Siegfried Rotthaeuser, who is importing and selling “Heatballs.” These are ingenious devices that screw into regular light sockets, but give off heat. Up to 95% of the energy consumed by Heatballs is emitted as heat; the rest is converted to light.

My hat is off to you, Herr Rotthaeuser.

If you speak German, you can learn more about Heatballs here: http://heatball.de.

(Cross-posted at my just-for-fun blog, Dispatches from Outland.

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The Neuroscience of Improvisation

Seed magazine has a fascinating article describing some recent studies of what goes on in the brain of a musician who’s improvising–that is, composing and performing music on the fly.

There is something fascinating about the act of musical improvisation—that moment when a musician departs from the score, embarking on a thematically relevant, yet wholly spontaneous composition. We normally think of it as the province of jazz musicians, conjuring the iconic image of a sax player wailing through riffs in a smoky, dim-lit club. John Coltrane and Bill Evans were masters. Miles Davis was never much for rehearsal. He used to gather his band in the studio, rattle off a few suggestions for the broad shape each track should take, and hit record.


How do musicians do this? When he’s ready to begin a cadenza, Levin says, he doesn’t have a plan. As many other seasoned improvisers claim, he just starts playing. It’s intuitive. But, Levin admits, he didn’t always know how to improvise. He had to learn. So the question remains: how can a skill that in its truest form is innate be learned?

Turns out that learning musical improvisation has much in common with how we learn to use language, and that some of the same parts of the brain are involved.

Like I said, it’s a fascinating article, and it reinforces my belief that some forms of creativity can be learned–and taught–in the same way that language and improvisation is.

What do you think?

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How to Kill Creativity

Daphne Gray-Grant has a nice list of 5 things you should do if you want to smother creativity before it can draw a single breath. (And if you don’t want to kill creativity, I assume that you’re clever enough to do the opposite of the things in her list.)

Here’s her list:

  1. Know exactly what you’re doing before you get started.
  2. Be careful not to offend.
  3. Get permission.
  4. Run it by everyone first.
  5. Criticize yourself at every step.
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Innovate or Die: Evaluating your organization’s “innovation quotient”

Editor’s note: Yesterday I gave a presentation called “Innovate or Die: Creating and nurturing a culture of innovation” at The Partner Event, an annual conference and networking event for businesses in the Microsoft Dynamics channel. I’ll be posting some of my presentation notes, and observations based on the discussion with my audience, over the next few days.

How do you figure out where your organization is on the “Highly Innovative/Not Innovative” continuum? Here are some ideas: Continue reading

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Compact Fluorescent Ideas?

From Mark Anderson:

Business Cartoon #6055 by Andertoons

(Click here to see more of Mark’s business cartoons.)

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The Freedom to Innovate: “FedEx Days” at Atlassian

Atlassian is an Australian software company that wanted to experiment with giving their developers some freedom to work on their own pet projects. So they created something that they called “FedEx days.”

During FedEx days, Atlassian developers have 24 hours to build and deliver a working software prototype.

Atlassian developer Seb Ruiz recently gave a presentation that explains how FedEx days work, and what the results have been.

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When Ideas Have Sex – Matt Ridley

Here’s a great talk by Matt Ridley on what happens when ideas meet and mate:

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