In many companies, initiating and leading a very innovative project is the best way to win a significant promotion or major bonus.
But you won’t have the mental energy to dream up ground-breaking ideas if you’re buried under a pile of non-creative work. Companies like Google let their teams spend 20% of their time on projects they are passionate about to foster innovation, but many companies lag behind them. The good news is that even if you work for a company that doesn’t actively nurture your creativity, it is still possible to set the stage for innovation on your how.
Here’s how to start doing so today, so you can come up with your big idea this year and advance your career.
- Tap into your passions. I interview hundreds of successful entrepreneurs every year. One thing many of these innovators have in common is that they borrow freely from other disciplines to come up with new ideas at work. One entrepreneur at a tech firm told me that going to art museums and playing piano fuels his creativity in business, helping him with product design. Others have told me that practicing martial arts and other sports have helped them develop a fresh mindset about work.
You can do the same thing as an employee. Instead of spending an extra hour hunched over your computer, try leaving on time at least once or twice a week so you can indulge in activities other than work. Those breaks are energizing and may help great ideas bubble up from your unconscious. Plus, getting outside of your cubicle will expose you to different people than the folks you sit next to every day, which can also stimulate fresh thinking.
Once you’re back in the office the next day, draw on your outside pursuits to bring a fresh point of view to your company’s problems. If, say, you’re a marketing exec working on a new campaign, ask yourself how a musician or a golf pro would tackle it. That may lead to some wacky ideas but it will also lead to some good ones you can act on. Ultimately, it will help you become a better”intrapreneur”–someone who introduces new initiatives and revenue streams within an organization. That’s a valuable role to play.
- Get onto the front lines. As Wharton professor Adam Grant has concluded, meeting or speaking with end users of your product or service can motivate employees to work harder and come up with more creative ideas. Meeting customers is easy to do if you’re on the sales or customer service team, but if you rarely speak with them to do your job, you’ll have to find ways to put yourself in contact with them.
Ask your boss if you can participate in some activities where you will meet customers so you can get a better grasp of the big picture for your company. Perhaps you can join a colleague on a sales call or sit in on a focus group the marketing department is holding. The more you understand whether or not your company is addressing end-users’ pain points, the easier it will be for you to come up with innovations that make those clients’ experience better in your own area of the business.
- Prime yourself for peak performance. Stanford research has found that walking—whether on a treadmill or on foot—dramatically increases people’s creative output. Some companies’ realize this. Mark Zuckerberg is known for holding walking meetings at Facebook. But if your company isn’t on the cutting edge, you may have to set the scene for yourself. Suggest walking meetings to colleagues. Or take phone calls at your desk and let yourself pace around the room. Keeping your body in motion kicks your brain into high gear.
Once you’re energized, make the most of it. When you sit back down at your desk, set aside 1o to 15 minutes to brainstorm ways you can take the ideas from the meeting to a new level. If a client suggested a small project, consider whether there are interesting ways you could do even more business together by expanding the scope or pulling in more colleagues with different skill sets. Are there ancillary products or services you could suggest? A better way of doing what you’re already doing? Include these ideas when you send your follow up thank-you note.
- Make the most of your work cycles. Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, has found that we work best in 90 minute bursts. Rather than force yourself to stay glued to your computer for three hours until you finish a task and ignore signs that your energy is petering out, take a break to recharge yourself. That stroll you take down the hall to chat with a colleague may be all the rest you need to come up with a killer idea when you return to your project.
When you start the next 90-minute spurt, dive right into the most important project on your plate and ignore the temptation to check email. Your creative energy will be highest at the beginning. Take this approach every day and you’ll be surprised at how much your productivity soars and how much more you can contribute to your company.
Just keep track of all of your innovations and their value to the company. Next time you go after a raise or promotion, that data should help you make a very strong case for yourself.