A dearth of “fresh thinking”?

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Here’s a weird one: according to a recent poll of 1,400 chief financial officers (CFOs) randomly chosen from a representative sample of U.S. companies with more than 20 employees, the biggest obstacles to growth and innovation these days stems not from spiraling heath care costs, a lack of skilled labor, high fuel prices, economic uncertainty, or anything like that.

No, apparently the biggest “roadblocks” to what’s being called “organizational breakthroughs” are a shortage of (get this) “fresh thinking and too much red tape.”

Now, the second “roadblock” one I understand completely, for one only needs to look at the contortions OEMs will have to undergo to certify their engines and vehicles to the new heavy-truck fuel economy/greenhouse gas (GHG) mandates going into effect in 2014 to see what I mean.

But a dearth of “fresh thinking”? A lack of “new ideas”? That’s about the very last thing I’d expected to hear from the U.S. business community.

Yet apparently that’s what Robert Half International discovered when it polled all those CFOs earlier this year, for the firm found more than one-third (35%) of them said a lack of new ideas is the greatest barrier to their company being more innovative.

On top of that, about one-quarter (24%) cited excessive bureaucracy as the top creativity killer, while 20% blamed being bogged down with daily tasks or putting out fires, its survey found.

“Innovation is the driving force behind every successful business, [so] managers should do their best to stretch and challenge their teams to combat complacency,” noted Max Messmer, Robert Half’s chairman and CEO, in probably the biggest “duh!” statement of the year so far.

From where I sit, with everything I’ve seen going on in the truck world of late, innovation seems to be alive and well – albeit, it must be noted, often done in hurried fashion to try and ensure the efficiency of the trucking industry isn’t completely compromised by the recent series of emission and fuel economy regulations.

I mean, take a look at what’s going in terms of truck design alone. Peterbilt Motors Co. brought a forward thinking “technology truck” to the 2012 Mid America Trucking Show this year to get customer feedback on some of its new design initiatives.

And of course there’s Freightliner’s new “Revolution” concept truck, introduced at the very same show this year – a fully functional road-worthy vehicle packed with all kinds of stuff resulting from “fresh thinking” if you ask me.

Still (primarily in the interest of making sure we cover all the bases) it’s worth a look at six tips Robert Half offers to help companies “inspire” innovation among their work teams:

  • Engage the entire team. Empowered employees tend to be more innovative because they have a bigger emotional stake in the firm's success. Cultivate a culture in which staff at all levels can easily share solutions for improving the business. Maintain an open-door policy and also encourage people to offer ideas in meetings, through an internal website or even an old-fashioned suggestion box.
  • Remove the red tape. Examine internal processes to ensure company procedures aren't generating unnecessary red tape. Employees become disillusioned when they put their time and energy into devising ingenious ideas only to wait forever for them to be approved and implemented.
  • Keep it collaborative. A healthy level of competition between employees can spur innovation. But if a workplace becomes too competitive, team members may be reluctant to speak up for fear that their suggestions will either be stolen or ridiculed. Create policies that support the open exchange of information and a team-first atmosphere.
  • Build a better brainstorm. Too many potentially great ideas are discarded prematurely in brainstorming meetings. Rein in the naysayers who relish in saying why novel proposals won't work. Support "blue-sky thinking."
  • Give 'em a break. Burnout does not beget brilliance. When employees are consistently overworked, they're likely to have more "uh-oh" than "a-ha!" moments. Implement programs that promote work-life balance, and consider bringing in temporary professionals during peak activity periods to keep your team fresh and focused. 
  • Seek inspiration. As a leader, you set the tone. You'll have difficulty motivating staff to ignite creative sparks if you're feeling uninspired yourself. Research shows a person in a relaxed, positive mood has more innovative thoughts. Feeling the pressure? Occasionally get away from your desk and unplug by going for a head-clearing stroll.

Good stuff to keep in mind, for sure. But from my way of thinking, if the trucking industry truly suffered from a lack of “fresh thinking,” freight would’ve stopped rolling in this nation of ours some time ago. 

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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