5 Steps to Create an Idea-Generating Culture

No matter where you are as a business, you'll need a culture that you can rely on to generate innovative ideas.

learn more about Risto Siilasmaa

By Risto Siilasmaa

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When I became chairman of Nokia in May 2012, the company was facing one of the most dire threats to its existence. Four years after Apple had introduced the iPhone and Google the Android operating system, the company had lost over 90 percent of its value. The media wasn't just speculating whether Nokia would go bankrupt; it was estimating when. We had to come up with a solution, or we wouldn't survive. It was as simple -- and scary -- as that.

Related: Successful Leaders Know They Can Learn From Everyone at Their Company

Whether your company is in a crisis or you want to dodge the next bullet, whether you're looking for new ways to grow or seeking a complete transformation, you'll need a culture that you can rely on to generate innovative ideas. Here are five steps to jump-start idea creation in your company:

1. Lead by example.

The best -- and really the only way -- to create the culture you want is by being a role model. Oftentimes, you don't need to "lead." You just do, and people will do what you do.

2. Be a paranoid optimist.

Being paranoid actually leads to confidence and optimism. How does this work? Because you're paranoid, you're more likely to foresee the worst-case possibilities. But, in naming your nightmares, you naturally begin to think about how to prevent them from happening. By thinking about ways to decrease a negative outcome, you can identify and implement the actions that increase the likelihood that things will tilt your way. That's why you can afford to be optimistic. And when the leader sincerely radiates optimism, it's infectious. A culture of paranoid optimism is a petri dish for ideas.

Related: 5 Characteristics of a Culture That Develops and Executes Breakthrough Ideas

3. Think in alternatives.

Thinking as a paranoid optimist almost forces you to think of alternative scenarios. You can't stop your imagination from coming up with different scenarios of successes and failures -- or ways to influence the outcomes.

And that's the point. Thinking in alternatives is not just about identifying existing options but about constantly imagining and even manufacturing different scenarios, then identifying the actions associated with each option. In other words, this is not just about listing realistic scenarios and coming up with related action plans. You can also come up with actions that will make an unrealistic positive scenario feasible.

To jump-start the process, when someone presents a plan to me, I'll often ask, "What are the alternatives?" Even if they don't respond with some alternatives this time, this question will remind them to think about alternatives next time -- and to ask their team members to do the same until it becomes standard discipline.

Making a habit of thinking in alternatives has multiple benefits: It reduces anxiety, because crafting an action plan is not as scary as facing an amorphous threat; it minimizes the chance that you might overlook something important; and it makes you very quick to react to whatever happens as, even if the worst case occurs, you have a response ready to implement. Just thinking about alternatives that might never happen deepens everyone's understanding of industry dynamics, sharpens their thinking and generates more ideas.

Related: When It Comes to Innovation, Go Big or Go Home

4. Build trust.

Thinking in alternatives is only truly possible in an environment where people trust each other without fear of being cut down or criticized. Trust both greases the gears and is the glue that holds everything together.

Instilling trust started the moment I welcomed everyone to the first Nokia board meeting I chaired. Each board member had to be able to trust all the other board members. The board as a group had to be able to trust the chairman. Trust had to flow out to the CEO and the management team, our employees, suppliers, partners and investors.

We laid a foundation of trust by crystallizing our model for board behavior: how we make decisions and the values we share. One core value: "Always assume the best of intentions from others." When someone says something you don't want to hear, delivers news you'd rather not receive or makes a suggestion you think is insane, rather than lash out, stop and ask a clarifying question. Operate openly, honestly and directly, and expect others to do the same. If you can follow that rule, it will change how you -- and they -- behave in a lot of situations. Cranking up your trust quotient opens the idea spigot.

5. Encourage accountability.

A sense of accountability is something an entrepreneur gets for free. The ideas dynamo really starts to spin when everyone feels "ownership" for their own roles as well as for the company.

When everyone feels accountable, there's an unstoppable force towards exploring new ways to think about and do things. You automatically start to come up with a higher number and wider range of alternatives. Some may seem at first glance to be completely crazy -- but sometimes a crazy idea is the only rational solution to a complex situation.

Bold, breakthrough ideas jump-started Nokia's turnaround and energized our transformation. They're the fuel for our future. Creating an idea-generating culture will enable your organization to respond anytime, anywhere, with the right strategy for every situation.

Risto Siilasmaa

Chairman of Nokia and author of 'Transforming Nokia'

Risto Siilasmaa has been the chairman of Nokia's board since 2012 and was interim CEO in 2013 and 2014. He is also the author of Transforming Nokia: The Power of Paranoid Optimism to Lead Through Colossal Change as well as the founder and chairman of F-Secure Corporation, a Finnish cybersecurity company.

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