The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization? is written by Ari Buchalter, president of MediaMath.
Instilling creative thinking within an organization as it grows is one of the key differentiators that turns small companies into big ones and big ones into market leaders. As companies grow—especially in the technology sector—it’s important for them to balance the need to maintain what’s been built with the need to encourage new ideas and innovations. Growth requires structure, process, and discipline to operate the business in a stable way, but also requires the organization to think creatively—even disruptively—about new problems that emerge. In our technology organization, that balancing act is top of mind, and there are three principles we follow to keep us on our toes:
Embrace a mindset of change
It starts with understanding and really embracing the fact that nothing is ever done. With whatever product we put out, customers will always want enhancements and competitors will try to outdo. Whatever internal system we’ve adopted or code we’ve written, something will come along that can do it better or faster. Whatever today’s answers are, they will eventually reach their limits, so it’s everyone’s job to be ready for what’s next. It’s not just our product that’s on version 2.0, but our hardware, our code base, our organizational structure, our individual skills—everything. Embracing change establishes a fluid and creative mindset and a focus on always getting better. We try to learn how other companies do things. We try out new computer languages and methodologies. We reserve 80 hours per employee each year for training and learning on any topics of their choosing.
We’ve learned from experience that not everyone thinks this way. We’ve seen employees wedded to a particular answer, unable to change their thought process or approach, while opportunity passes by. We know that’s not a good fit, and so we look for a change-embracing mindset when recruiting at every level.
Empower teams to own solutions
The job of management is to define strategy and empower the organization to make it happen. Members of startups often feel empowered to think creatively and take action. But as a team of hundreds—spread across many offices around the globe and developing multiple products—our focus has shifted toward distributed problem-solving and decision-making. We set up teams that can independently develop solutions—each with effective leadership, strong talent within each functional area, and a clear sense of their unique objectives. They are empowered to think creatively about the technology and business challenges before them and define and own the solutions. That means considering a broader range of options, from open sourcing to outsourcing and from in-house development to partnerships to M&A. In effect, they are designed to have the agility and speed of a startup, but with the resources and stability of an enterprise behind them.
Autonomous teams increase throughput, creativity, and sense of ownership. But they also raise the bar on maintaining a clear, strategic vision so that the output of those teams adds up to a meaningful whole. And they require strong, cross-functional disciplines to ensure excellence across the board and eliminate duplication and friction.
Focus on scalable innovation
Lots of ideas are interesting, but not all are impactful. We focus our creativity on innovation that can scale. When coming across a problem, we encourage our teams not to think narrowly about the specific case presented, but to generalize to a class of related problems, and to try to come up with solutions that apply across them. We apply a “10x” lens on anything we do, asking, “How could we do this at a scale 10 times bigger?” Overlaying the practical considerations of scalability early on leads to ideas that work better, go into production faster, and require less rebuilding later on.
Scalable innovation also breeds entrepreneurs. It’s more likely to lead to ideas that see the light of day and that can stand as businesses on their own. That’s why, without setting out to do so, our company has spun out 10 standalone businesses led by former employees who transformed into chief executives of their own ventures. It’s an amazing thing for a company of our size and age, and it’s due largely to our focus on scalable innovation, empowering our teams to own solutions, and embracing a mindset of change—and the creativity it breeds.