THE BLOG
04/16/2013 01:02 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2013

Building a Culture of Idea Sharing

Creative thinking has become the most valuable skill set of this century. The internet is creating the largest human community in history, and it is all designated for idea sharing. This virtual global community allows anyone to come up with an idea and share it easily with millions of people, which is having a drastic effect on how we're organizing within our businesses. In fact, the average lifespan of S&P 500 companies has fallen from 61 years, in 1958, to just 18 years today. In order for us to be successful in this environment, we have to build a culture of ideas within our companies. Here's what I've seen work well:

Define a Strong Sense of Purpose

Autonomy is the foundation for enabling creative thinking in a company. If everyone understands what they are working towards and they all buy into the dream, then people can apply their various backgrounds to solving problems by thinking divergently.

The e-retailer Zappos, is a sparkling example of how employee autonomy leads to success. The About section on Zappos.com portrays their commitment to purpose, stating: "We've been asked by a lot of people how we've grown so quickly, and the answer is actually really simple... We've aligned the entire organization around one mission: to provide the best customer service possible." To enable this, Zappos gives call-center employees full autonomy to deliver a "wow" experience to every customer. Like one customer service rep's decision to overnight free dress shoes to the best man in a wedding. Consequently, shoppers consistently rank Zappos number one in customer service.

Take Risks

As the saying goes, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." All great things have an element of risk and company cultures need to reward risk-taking. The best way to do this is to have honest communication of mistakes and to set measurable goals outside individual comfort zones.

Celebrating "hero teams" can be one way of signaling this. Hero teams have achieved results that fall below expectations, but have worked harder than other teams, so they're recognized and rewarded for this. As long as we appreciate hard work and progress towards reaching goals, teams can feel confident about taking risks while problem-solving.

Forge Authentic Relationships

Remember when we dared to dream big as children? We felt the world was at our feet but we learned to be afraid as we grew up. We need to counteract this mentality in our businesses and get back to shooting for the stars. Initiating this requires vulnerability from the leadership. I've had a great experience hosting "dream dinners," where I go for one-on-one dinners with a colleague just to discuss future goals and ambitions.

Raleigh Denim has created a successful business almost entirely through forging authentic relationships. The company has grown from two people to over 50 employees in less than 5 years and has acquired a global, cult following for their high quality denim. They source all their materials from local vendors in North Carolina and handle everything from initial design to finished jean under one roof. The founders are high-school sweethearts who said in an interview that "the most sustainable and enjoyable way to do anything is to do it where you are, around people you like... this approach is old-fashioned but forward thinking."

Work in Small Teams

Removing dependencies also unleashes creativity. Forming teams with a maximum of seven people and rotating people and reevaluating teams every 6 months keeps idea- generation at the forefront and builds strong relationships. It might seem like rotating teams this frequently is inefficient because each team has to go through an adjustment period. However, forcing people to be uprooted and allowing each problem to be reexamined with a new set of eyes helps to generate new perspectives. Small, intimate yet dynamic teams are a critical component for any business that is built on creative thinking.

The rapid rise and fall of companies will continue, and creative thinking will only become more of an asset to small businesses. Having a strong sense of purpose, taking risks, emphasizing authentic relationships and working in small teams will keep us competitive as the idea economy continues shifting in ways we can't predict. Are you ready for this ride?