The Origins of Spark: Creating a Culture of Innovation

The Origins of Spark: Creating a Culture of Innovation


Trust is the key, but it’s not the whole picture. Spark is the second part of the equation.

Spark occurs when people’s creative energies are flowing. Spark means providing people with the freedom to explore new ideas without fear. Spark means people feel deeply engaged in devising ways to improve the business. Spark happens when there’s a big vision, clearly communicated, and the entire team is focused on achieving that vision. It exists when there are clear performance measures tied to the things that matter and performance is evaluated fairly and consistently.

Spark is related to the idea of “flow”

“Flow” was first introduced by the social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In great organizations, trust and spark feed off one another. Trust sets the stage for productive innovation (i.e., innovation that is in service to the goals of the organization). When you build trust, people become open to change. By energizing employees with spark, you unleash the innovation that makes an organization vibrate with new ideas and real purpose.

Together, trust and spark create a culture in which people feel deeply engaged and committed to the company’s success.

3M is a good example of a company that focuses on trust and spark.

Its “15 percent rule” enables employees to spend 15 percent of their work time exploring and conducting experiments. Technical employees can apply for internal corporate grants to fund innovative projects they want to pursue. It’s this careful nurturing of innovation that has resulted in products like ScotchGard™ and Thinsulate™. Giving employees a day each week to innovate as they choose is a practice at many leading companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google.

Fred Smith, the founder and CEO of Federal Express, has a similar strategy for his company:

“We hammer home that not to change is to be in the process of dying, of not meeting the market as it is. We applaud people who instigate change. We don’t hang people who try something new that doesn’t work out, because that’s the easiest way to ossify an organization—to crucify the people who are trying to innovate.”

Building Spark

By now, everyone is familiar with the story of how the two Steves—Wozniak and Jobs—pretty much created the personal computer industry. Steve Jobs put a premium on fun, creativity, learning, and exploring new ideas: “Learning about new technologies and markets is what makes this fun for me,” Jobs was fond of saying. “You just got to go learn this stuff. If you’re smart, you’ll figure it out.”

Spark thrives in an environment of freedom, where the unexpected is invited, embraced, and encouraged to evolve into value.

Walt Disney understood it. Long before Mickey Mouse came along, he injected creativity into his team of animators. He wasn’t content to have silent cartoons: he wanted the first cartoons with sound. He wasn’t content with black and white: he wanted color. The people who worked with Disney often remarked on the freedom he gave them to try new things—and they drew on the culture he built to come up with their own dazzling creations.

Here’s a story about Walt’s ingenuity. In 1934, while making his masterpiece of animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney became dissatisfied with the limitations of two-dimensional backgrounds. He wanted to convey depth realistically, yet all he had to work with was animation cells on photographic plates. So Disney challenged his team to find a better way.

The result was the multiplane camera, an elaborate, one-story-tall device with a dozen moving glass panels on which his animators could superimpose different backdrops. By subtly shifting the positions of the glass panels with each shot, Disney’s animators successfully conveyed the illusion of three dimensions in Snow White. Remember, this is 1937! Through his constant quest for creative quality, Disney sparked his teams of animators and producers to think freely and create great things. Walt Disney Studios innovated, learned from its mistakes, and blossomed into one of the most successful companies in the world.

Spark isn’t limited to the private sector.

Ted Gaebler, coauthor of Reinventing Government, sees innovation as one of government’s most important missions: “We need to start engaging public employees’ whole brains,” he says, “not just the expenditure control half. We need to engage the entrepreneurial brain as well.”

It’s easy to spot companies with high levels of spark:

  • People feel free to challenge the status quo.
  • People go way beyond what you normally expect.
  • People feel their work is fun.
  • People feel unconstrained by rank or hierarchy to suggest improvements.
  • People aren’t afraid to share their ideas about how to improve things.

One of the best examples of spark is Google.

Here’s a company that a decade or so ago barely registered a ripple. Today, its innovations influence everything from advertising and media to geoscience, disease control, and climate prediction. In the next several years, Google’s innovations will enable your refrigerator to communicate your shopping list directly to the grocery store, guide your car as it navigates down the highway, and convert your home into a mini-generating plant. Google has created a new kind of company, one that blends the best of a nonprofit with the best of a for-profit. By operating with high levels of spark, it has rearranged and reshaped everything we do.

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