Sledgehammer Innovation, And Why Aha Moments Mean Nothing

A behind-the-scenes glimpse into why a 29-year-old company with over 6,000 employees is widely regarded as a beacon of innovation.

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"For a big company, we can turn on a dime when we need to," says Mike Watson, Vice President of Product Strategy at Cree.

With that single line he cut right through the heart of a fear held by many startup founders. It's an entirely naturally fear, one that's often evident in the laws of objects and movement.

A gigantic ship typically lacks the agility of a small motor boat.

An NBA power forward typically lacks the agility of the team's point guard.

And a company that has doubled or tripled in size typically can't "turn on a dime" quite like it used to when it was a team of four or five.

So why was Cree, a multinational manufacturer of semiconductor light-emitting diode (LED) materials that was founded back in 1987, named by Fast Company as one of the world's top 50 most innovative companies in 2015?

"Truth is, innovation actually used to mean something," says Watson. He believes the term is so frequently thrown around as a buzzword that it's more often used as a "deceptive marketing condiment." Watson sees the term as a way of being, and he believes it's something far more sustainable and replicable than the flash-in-the-pan stroke of brilliance it's often known as:

Innovation begins with the nurturing of a workplace culture that values creativity and gives great ideas a chance to incubate. From there it's all about creating what a great idea needs the most: a talented, driven team who is granted the time and space to focus exclusively on the idea, and a larger multi-faceted strategy to ensure that the results of their focused work can see the light of day."

The problem

For Cree to foster innovation, they had to take a real problem that exists in the world—in their case, that traditional light bulbs are actually better at generating heat than they are at generating light—and then create small teams to take on the challenge.

"Our culture believes in spending all of its time, energy, resources, and actual budget money on things that matter," Watson began.

With such a mindset you realize that sometimes getting 6,000 people on board with a particular idea can get in the way of what matters most. It's not that the 6,000 people aren't vitally critical to your business success, but you have to bite-size those critical first steps and then take the large organization (or otherwise find a way) to reinforce those first steps through mass implementation."

Cree's willingness to do this is what compels employees like Watson to join them in Durham, North Carolina. "I saw their willingness to completely retool the company if it meant achieving a greater goal," he says. "That was when I knew I had to get on board."

The company was formed in 1987 when a small team of researchers at North Carolina State University, despite countless people telling them otherwise, believed that silicon carbide had immense potential as a commercially viable material. Through their singular focus they eventually made the discoveries that led to the forming of Cree, a company up until recently that was known only for providing the components that went inside other companies' LED products.

In this sense, the true problem for Cree wasn't how to get the large team to turn on a dime, and it wasn't even how to create a home consumer product when they had absolutely no experience doing so. It was how to build a better lightbulb that doesn't rely on 100-year-old technologies, and how to create a bulb radically better than what they were seeing as the flawed LED bulbs flooding the market.

The solution: sledgehammer innovation

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For Cree, an aha moment means nothing unless it's supported by the culture and backed by a strategy to make something of it. "It's our belief that true innovation takes more than an aha moment, it takes a sledgehammer," he says.

Sledgehammer innovation is what happens when a brilliant idea is paired with the grit of hard labor. It's made of equal parts imagination and roll up your sleeves.

When there's a truly innovative idea at Cree, the leadership team immediately finds a way to create the environment that idea must have if it's ever to thrive. And that often means busting through barriers, or at the very least breaking out of whatever functional fixedness is standing in the way.

A core component of sledgehammer innovation is breaking up a large team into a smaller team (or teams), and Watson has given us here at TMT a glimpse into a few of the concrete details your team can probably implement right now.

It comes back to bite-sizing, really breaking the larger team up into handpicked smaller teams who can focus all of their attention on solving a specific problem. But we've found that the ideal team size is about four to five people."

Watson's comment on team size aligns with what Cyrus Molavi, Product Manager at Flow, discovered in his research on team size and productivity, but Cree paired this with another insight to help them develop America's best-selling LED bulb.

In addition to carefully selecting a core team consisting of LED scientists and some of our best systems designers, we also made sure they had an environment where they could focus."

This meant uprooting these employees from their existing teams, or whatever project they were working on, and putting them in a separate location. Watson says it would have been difficult, probably impossible, for Cree to have accomplished its end goal if these employees remained in their old desks. They would have had to deal with too many distractions.

"There's something about starting a new project in a new location," Watson says. So the core team worked in a different building and they worked... in secret.

Nobody knew what they were working on. At times they would even work at night so that nobody saw what they were doing. Cree's decision to separate these core employees taps into the curtain effect, a study by Harvard researcher Ethan Bernstein that proves how separation can increase productivity.

This level of separation allowed for maximum focus, another word Watson believes must be taken more seriously by those striving for innovation.

Science continues to prove the negative impact of multitasking. If you're splitting your focus between multiple things it means you're likely doing multiple things poorly. It's like... if you hire an employee with great talent, and ask them to be great at two or three things, you've just turned their greatness into mediocrity. Cree has understood the link between innovation and focus since it started back in 1987. Our new LED bulb is only the most recent example."

Cree's ability to turn on a dime is a direct result of embracing their roots. They grew, as most companies do, through a singular vision that was built through the dogged work of a small team. Rather than simply looking back on those days as that time when, they've found ways to spread those roots upward and into the culture of their growing team.

There are countless benefits to growing your team, but increased agility won't be one of them until you make it (or break it) so.

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Has your company found success through some aspect of sledgehammer innovation? How does your team move from aha moment to idea development? 

-For information about the Cree® LED Bulb, visit CreeBulb.com

-Sledgehammer photo: Carbon Arc

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