by John Baldoni

Ingenuity: The Spark That Belongs to Everyone

Aug 03, 20076 mins
InnovationIT Leadership

From the Jesuits to NASA to Google you'll find examples of ingenuity leading to success.

There is not much good news coming out of Detroit these days. Domestic automakers are experiencing a steady decline in business that has caused them to shrink their capacity by closing facilities and cutting tens of thousands of jobs. So it was refreshing to learn of the development and installation of the Happy Seat. It is a device suggested and designed in part by hourly workers at Chrysler’s Sterling Heights plant to allow them to slide into a vehicle (the new Chrysler Sebring) and more easily attach the front console to the frame. Prior to the development of this device, such work was onerous because it caused stress to back and joints.


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The Happy Seat is only one of several devices or new processes that Chrysler employees have developed to make work more ergonomic. What’s more, quality goes up because there is less twisting and turning by workers working inside the vehicle; excess movements cause dings and scratches. “I am seeing engineering changes now in two weeks to 60 days,” says a UAW committeewoman. “It has taken morale sky high,” she told the Detroit Free Press.

Ideas from the Factory Floor

Such developments are examples of worker ingenuity that all too often get swept under the rug in the headlong push to get things done. In manufacturing, production trumps everything. Yet sometimes, as the workers at Chrysler have proven, you need to listen to ideas offered by people doing the work. Easy to say, but so often overlooked by higher ups. In fact, workers at Chrysler say that many previous suggestions of this nature were ignored. Even union members resisted such changes. What is different this time? Likely it is a matter of circumstance meeting need. The company needs a hit new car and it needs motivated workers to ensure that the launch and production go as smoothly as possible.

Looked at from a different angle, what is going on in Chrysler plant is an example of what happens when people can create for themselves. For all of our talk about innovation, sometimes we overlook simple ideas, and that’s where ingenuity enters. Ingenuity begets innovation because it is the recognition point: We can do this better. Furthermore, ingenuity sparks execution; that is, following through on the idea.

Leadership plays a role in ingenuity in one of two ways: One, it authorizes the development of a new idea. That’s what happened at Chrysler. Senior management provided the engineering resources necessary to carry out improvements. Two, it carries the idea forward where it can be implemented. That’s entrepreneurship. Innovators from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs built businesses to execute their ideas and bring them to fruition. What can managers do to create a culture where ingenuity can flourish?

Authorize it. One of the enduring legacies of the Jesuits, a Catholic order of priests and brothers, is ingenuity. Ingenuity, or adaptation to change, was a central tenet of their leadership, according to Chris Lowney, author of Heroic Leadership (Loyola Press, 2003), a study of the Jesuits. The Jesuit order established the free university system of Europe, in part to educate men for the order. This goal guided Jesuits to lead a kind of make-it-happen mindset that encouraged careers in teaching as well as science, law, medicine and even business.

Talk it up. Ingenuity belongs to everyone in the organization. You want to encourage people to feel free to offer new ideas. Xerox, for example, encourages engineers to blog about their work and in the process help share ideas. In a Fortune magazine article entitled Inventor in Chief, Xerox CTO Sophie Vandebroek says, “[W]e created a Wiki to help articulate the strategy we want to execute… A lot of the brightest ideas and the best articulations come from within [the company].”

Get out of the way. Sometimes the best thing a leader can do to spark ingenuity is to stay out of the way. Companies as diverse as W.L. Gore and Google have policies that enable people to work on pet projects; managers sanction the efforts but stay out of the day-to-day running. This enables employees to focus on doing projects that are near and dear to their hearts.

Impose discipline. Working for time is not the same as playing for time. You have to demonstrate good return on the dollars you invest, and that goes for work in nonprofits, too. You must be accountable for the work you do. Again, W.L. Gore and Google do a great job of ensuring that projects show a return, or if they don’t the plug gets pulled. At the same time, talented and accountable employees will be offered new opportunities to pursue their projects. Ingenuity is preserved.

Outside the Lines

Sometimes organizations are not the best place for the truly ingenious. The July 1 New York Times Magazine profiled several solo inventors who were working on projects for NASA. As author Jack Hilt put it, “Americans have great faith in the idea of the outside inventor.” Toward that end, NASA has created the Centennial Challenges, a set of seven prizes ranging from $200,000 to $2 million for inventors, to stimulate development of things from the next generation space gloves to a new lunar lander. NASA’s approach takes a cue from history. Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize for crossing the Atlantic in 1927, and more recently Virgin Space won the X Prize for two suborbital flights last year. What Lindbergh and Virgin have in common with today’s aspiring NASA inventors is that all our working outside a hierarchy. They are pursuing dreams as much as prizes.

The U.S. business culture is one where circumstance (need) meets creator (idea) meets capital (entrepreneurship). Innovation can flourish here, but ideas from everywhere are more than welcome—they’re necessary. Sophie Vandebroek of Xerox is a prime example. She hails from Belgium and works with teams not only in the United States but also in Canada and France. Good ideas know no national boundaries and in today’s global economy, home is where the ideas take root. And that’s pretty ingenious.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as nonprofits including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker and the author of six books on leadership, the most recent being How Great Leaders Get Great Results. Visit his leadership resource website at