Sparking Brilliance in Yourself and Innovation in Your Company

May 12, 2016

Brent Darnell, Aff.M.ASCE, is president and owner of Brent Darnell International in Atlanta. Both author and presenter, Darnell presented at the ASCE 2015 Convention in New York and took part in the Young Professional Leadership Development Track at ABC’s 2015 Leadership Week. For more information, email or visit

Part one of three

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” —Albert Einstein

As a company, you have only two competitive advantages: your people and innovation. And your people are the ones who come up with innovative ways to do things. Companies must innovate or they may not be around in the near future. Companies like Google, Apple, Zappos, and Cisco all invest a lot of time and energy on two things: 1) making sure that their people are engaged and excited about what they are doing, and 2) creating an atmosphere of innovation.

How do they do this? The first thing is to pay attention to the needs of the employees. They continuously talk to employees about how they appreciate what they do. Managers walk around and interact and get to know the employees and their passions, likes, dislikes, and motivations. Secondly, they create a climate where innovation is rewarded. There are no bad ideas. Everything is considered. They don’t prevent new ideas. They embrace everything as a possibility and discuss the options. They are not afraid of failure. They create an environment where people can come together formally and informally to share ideas and thoughts on how business is done and how to make it better. Employees are taught to silence that inner critic and mangers are taught to say “yes” and “thank you” instead of “no, but” and “we tried that before and it didn’t work.” Let me be clear. “Yes, and …” doesn’t mean that you agree with everything. “Yes, and …” creates a healthy dialogue of meaningful discussion.

A great example of “yes, and …” happened during and after one of our sessions. An engineering company tried to come up with ideas for creating more fun and engagement at work. The first part of the exercise negated everyone’s ideas with “yes, but …” responses. Then we changed to “yes, and …” and the suggested ideas built upon each other, they were added to, until the group came up with an original way to foster innovation in the company – which was by gathering together for 20 minutes a day to “play.” For those 20 minutes, they could do anything they wanted to as long as it wasn’t their day-to-day work. They could work on an issue, work on a new way of doing something, or work on an innovative idea.

The group told me that, as engineers, they had been taught to find all of the problems and say “no,” to find every way that something WILL NOT WORK. And this exercise taught them that that way of working was shutting down their creativity and innovation. With the 20-minute play rule, they were now coming up with completely new ways of looking at things and fresher approaches to projects and work. That is the power of “yes, and …”

What is the atmosphere at your company? Is it open to new ideas and innovation? We all must think very differently to survive in this economy. Early designers of flying machines used movable wings because it emulated a bird in flight. But it wasn’t until the paradigm was shifted with fixed-wing aircraft that manned flight became possible. There are artificial hearts that emulate a real heart with chambers and a flow of blood that causes a heartbeat. But the latest innovation in that arena is an artificial heart with continuous flow. ThereSidebar Template How to spark brilliance in yourself and innovation in your company_JM is no beat. It is a simple pump that continuously sends the blood throughout your body. This paradigm shift is leading to very efficient and simple artificial hearts. But it took someone to look at the way things were being done and say, “What if?” Companies are starting to wake up to this fact about innovation. What if companies starting hiring MFAs (Masters of Fine Arts) instead of MBAs? Would these creative people give companies the creative edge they need?

What is your expertise? What are your people’s talents? How can you leverage that in a business setting to create new revenue streams? Don’t think about how you’ve always done business. Think about what value you and your people bring and see if that is applicable in other areas. Get a group discussion going and brainstorm this concept. You never know where it will lead.

Some of the folks I talk to about innovation in their companies resist because they think that when it comes to creativity and innovation, there are no rules, no boundaries, no processes involved. But there are some very good methodologies out there that provide great frameworks for innovation. One of them is from the Stanford d.School. This five-step process is amazing for design and creative problem solving (see yellow box on right).


In Part Two, coming in two weeks, we will talk about some very specific ways to spark innovation in your company.

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