Cultural melting pots produce inventive meals, believes Sohrab Vossoughi, CEO of Ziba, an innovation consulting firm in Portland, Oregon. Ziba counts some 26 nationalities and 19 languages among its 120 employees. "People with different genetic backgrounds tend to have healthier children," says Vossoughi, an immigrant from Iran. "It's the same with ideas as it is with biology." Ziba, he says, also benefits from employees' knowledge of global markets.
Provide Lots of Free Time to Think
"The five last bastions of thinking are the car, the john, the shower, the church or synagogue, and the gym," says Joey Reiman, CEO of BrightHouse, an Atlanta-based innovation consulting firm whose clients include Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) and Delta Airlines (NYSE:DAL). Note the absence of office from that roster. In addition to nearly five weeks' vacation, BrightHouse's 18 staff members get five Your Days, in which they are encouraged to visit a spot conducive to reflection and let their neurons rip. No mandate to solve a particular problem. Just blue-sky thinking -- often under actual blue skies. Reiman believes this unstructured cogitation is just as important to a project's success as time spent hunkered down in client meetings. Or as he puts it: "I think; therefore, I am valuable."
Similarly, at Maddock Douglas, an Elmhurst, Illinois, firm that helps companies develop and market new products, employees can bank from 100 to 200 hours a year to pursue whatever intrigues them. (Google popularized a similar model, allotting engineers 20 percent of work hours for personal projects.) "Everybody has a place on their time sheets where they can say, This is not for a billable client," says president Raphael Louis Viton.
Encourage Risky Behavior
Every year, BrightHouse holds an event known as March Fo(u)rth. On that date, each employee is encouraged to do something -- jump from a plane, scuba-dive, start writing a novel -- he or she has never attempted. "If we're known for anything, it's possibilitarianism," says CEO Reiman. Maddock Douglas, meanwhile, gives an annual Fail Forward award, which is designed to celebrate endeavors both ambitious and disastrous. Last year, a designer at the firm won for an unorthodox publication design that wound up laying waste to the production schedule and resulted in a costly error. "It was a total embarrassment," says president Viton. "But she was trying to do something new and different and better. She went for it, and she won an award for it."
Write it Down
Frog Design, a San Francisco-based consulting firm, publishes Frog Design Mind, a print and online magazine that serves as a quarterly compendium of staff articles on subjects that excite employees. Each issue is themed, but that's it for boundaries. In the most recent issue, on health, one designer used illustrations and captions to capture the discombobulating experience of being deaf in one ear. Another proposed monitoring people's health using a technologically enabled version of a Tibetan singing bowl. "We do it to keep our employees fresh, but thousands of people read it," says president Doreen Lorenzo. "We recently got a very large health care client because they read that issue."
At Innosight, a Watertown, Massachusetts-based firm founded by Clay Christensen, interviewers use case studies to assess problem-solving skills. Partner Julie Sequeira recently asked a job applicant how he would reverse the newspaper industry's declining fortunes. "I couldn't get him to stop thinking about the printed newspaper," she says. "That indicates risk-averse thinking." Chris Conley, co-founder of Gravitytank, a 30-employee firm in Chicago, is interested in how applicants deal with criticism: whether they tear into a creative exchange or defend their first idea to the bitter end. "To innovate, you have to be very open to critique, to why things won't work," says Conley.
Bring in Outsiders
Many top innovation firms tap the perspectives of outside experts -- be they physicists, poets, actors, archaeologists, theologians, or astronauts. At BrightHouse, such distinguished professionals, otherwise known as "luminaries," are constantly cycling through the office. When the firm was working on a project for Red Lobster, it invited Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the wreck of the Titanic; he helped the team explore the association between its corporate identity and mankind's eternal fascination with the ocean. When working on a major reorganization of Emory University, BrightHouse enlisted Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon; he talked about how constant training can leach fear from the unknown. CEO Reiman assesses the potential of each project for cross-disciplinary ferment and then consults the company's Rolodex. For employees, the experience is akin to a never-ending liberal arts education with the world's most prestigious faculty.
Be Flexible. Very Flexible
At InnovationLabs, in Walnut Creek, California, almost everyone is an outsider. That's because the company operates on the Hollywood model: It has just four principals and pulls together a new team for each project. Those teams, drawn from a worldwide network developed through referrals, may include business professors, webmasters, scientists, even the occasional dancer. Also, unlike many consulting firms, InnovationLabs has no prescribed process; team members can work any way they like. Given that many may not have met before an assignment, each project becomes a learning experience as contractors share brainstorming and visualization techniques. "Some people are amused when they work with us, because we're so averse to telling people what to do," says managing partner Langdon Morris. "But we want our people to be creative about how they help clients be creative."
Do it for Free
Creative folks enjoy applying their talents to noble causes -- and, increasingly, their employers keep them happy by providing opportunities to do so. At BrightHouse, employees with great ideas for improving public life receive a $1,000 bonus on the spot. "It's a way to reward people not for the hours they put in but for the size of their hearts," says CEO Reiman.
Mix Up Your People
Some companies shake things up by letting employees loose in others' playpens. Ziba promotes such cross-fertilization with its Ambassador Program, in which employees spend about three months working in disciplines (known as tribes) different from their own. During that period, employees do their own work but also experience their colleagues' specialties. They sit in on brainstorming sessions and staff meetings and offer their own insights and critiques. Says CEO Vossoughi: "It creates an understanding of another world."