How to boost creativity

Bill Coughlin and Mark Hatch at Ford

Ford Motor Company (F) is full of smart, experienced engineers. But like every other company in the world, they want their workforce to be more creative. New ideas, better designs, smarter features: All this drives sales and customer satisfaction. But every company in the world struggles with it. So when Ford was able to increase its new inventions by 17% in under one year, attention had to be paid.

The experiment was the brainchild of Bill Coughlin, CEO of Ford Global Technology. He'd been inspired by Tech Shop, a new business headed by Mark Hatch. Recognizing that the cost of prototyping machinery has plummeted, and that the software has made it easy to use, TechShop was created as a place where anyone with an idea can figure out how to turn it into reality. It isn't just the equipment that works the magic. As a welcoming, open environment, it is full of people with experience, enthusiasm and encouragement who can both instruct would-be inventors and bring a lot of insight and guidance to their ideas.

"A light went on in my head," Coughlin told me, "because we had a brainstorming week at Ford but I've always wanted to take it to next level: Prototyping. So when I read about TechShop I thought: Maybe I can get them to come to Detroit and build things with them."

TechShop runs on a health club model, making money through selling memberships. When Ford guaranteed a certain number of members, the deal was worthwhile. And to get the creative juices flowing, Ford offered incentives to the workforce: Anyone who submitted a good idea would get a free 3-month membership.

"When people start thinking innovatively," Coughlin enthuses, "it is hard to turn off. Problems become opportunities and they start challenging themselves. In TechShop, the equipment is attainable and that builds confidence."

By training, Coughlin is a patent attorney, a profession not popularly celebrated for its creativity. But Coughlin decided to try some of the tools and lessons himself.

"Can I as a mere mortal use this stuff? That's what I wondered. And I can! You know how IKEA is famous for its flat packs? Well I wondered if I could do better by making a table that needs no connectors, screws or glues? So I took a class in how to use their automated router and I built a table that requires no tools to assemble it! Now, I don't have any plans to go into the furniture business - but from the creativity standpoint, I would never have thought that I could do that."

Coughlin calls himself "just one humble example" but his example proves an important point: We are all more creative than we usually find the opportunity to demonstrate. That's what TechShop provides: The chance to explore and discover just how innovative anyone can be.

"If we can get some of our inventions into cars and trucks that might not otherwise have made it, Ford wins," says Coughlin. "If we can help the community launch new businesses, we all win."

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.