How Do You Encourage Real Innovation?

Community Host
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stopsign.creditlaservision.jpgPhoto Credit: Laservision

Where I live in Massachusetts, no amount of signage or other early-warning systems seem to prevent trucks from getting stuck in our notoriously low-clearance tunnels and underpasses. Know what they use in Australia? Holograms.

Holograms and also waterfalls. You see, you need an actual surface to project the hologram on - one that can be lowered and raised easily regardless of passing traffic. When a too-tall vehicle approaches the Harbour Tunnel in Sydney, Australia, it trips a sheet of falling water that serves as the projector screen for a giant stop sign. You kinda can't miss it.

Do you know what this means? Among other things, it means that someone, somewhere had a really great boss.

I imagine a meeting about the problem of too-tall trucks, and a raised hand: "How about we use a hologram of a stop sign?" Better yet, someone suggested this new application for hologram technology and the person next to him said, "That might work, but you'd need a giant waterfall to project it on." It's all about setting the tone for open-ended problem solving, and that starts at the top.

Part of the boss's job is to create a workspace that values and encourages a certain amount of spitballing. Where it's ok to bust out with some really dumb ideas because actually there are no really dumb ideas and maybe the next idea will be the one about saving millions of dollars in energy costs by turning off the lights in vending machines. (Or saving thousands of dollars each year by keeping trucks from getting stuck in your tunnels.) Same holds true if you are your own boss. do you encourage innovation? Have you ever had, or heard of, a truly great idea that changed the way you think about your job?


Community Manager

This is such a cool bite of information to go along with a really interesting question, @EmilyCowan. Thanks for it. I worked with a really great "boss" who was a wiz at taking spitball ideas, considering them realistically and then green-lighting awesome new projects.


I was producing a series of radio stories for a group that aimed to highlight the positive accomplishments local teenagers were making. After doing a good many of these stories myself, I pitched the following idea: If people could hear teens telling their own stories about things they cared about, that could be the secret sauce that might truly change hearts and minds.  


Because of that great boss, within a few months I had seed money to launch the Alaska Teen Media Institute (ATMI). And guess what? ATMI is now 14 years old and was recently selected to contribute teen-produced health reporting for a national television news program. I haven't been involved for years but I'm still so proud of their continued accomplishments!


I trace ATMI's success (as well as a great deal of mine) back to that boss from long ago who encouraged spitballing, creativity, innovation and had the confidence to give me a chance to try something new.

Community Host

That's a great story, @ShanaNiederman - thank you for sharing, and congrats on the continuing success of ATMI! I love the idea of giving teens a wider platform for positive self-expression. I'm glad that 14 years ago your boss saw the potential there, even before social media. 


My first boss used this approach: Whenever someone had a new idea she'd ask the room,  "Well, what are the arguments against?" If there weren't any, we tried it. Because why not?