Thursday, January 22, 2015

Quick and Nimble: Lessons From Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation

A book review by: Courtney Zwart
Buffalo State College


Introduction and Link to Creativity

Do you wish that you could pick the brains of leading CEOs on how to create a culture of innovation within your organization?  If so, then journalist Adam Bryant’s non-fiction book, “Quick and Nimble:  Lessons From Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation” is just the resource you are looking for.  If the name Adam Bryant sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the author of the New York Times’ weekly feature, “The Corner Office,” which provides highlights from discussions with today’s leaders about both leadership and management.

Drawing from discussions with more than 200 CEOs occurring between March 2009 and May 2013, Bryant distills their insights regarding essential ingredients of an effective corporate culture as well as leadership strategies for cultivating and sustaining innovation in organizations.  A journalist, not scholarly researcher, Bryant’s book represents a qualitative approach to identifying and understanding these ingredients.  

With this book, Bryant dives headfirst into one of the primary influences on creativity – the environment in which creativity operates.  Grounded in actual experiences – stories by CEOs – his book provides “practical tips and insights that would be useful and relevant for any organization” trying to build a culture of innovation and drive growth.  This work is an excellent complement to studies and assessments of optimal environments for creativity by researchers such a Teresa Amabile and Goran Ekvall.


The book is organized into two parts.  Part I, “Setting the Foundation,” delves into the necessary elements of an effective culture.  Part II, “Taking Leadership to the Next Level,” offers leadership strategies (that build on this foundation) to cultivate and embed innovation.

Elements detailed in Part I range from the high-level to the tactical.  The first, and perhaps most important chapter in the book, explores why culture matters: “A successful culture is like a greenhouse where people and ideas can flourish—where everybody in the organization, regardless of rank or role, feels encouraged to speak frankly and openly and is rewarded for sharing ideas about new products, more efficient processes, and better ways to serve customers.”  The last chapter in Part I discusses a much more tactical element, the hazards of e-mail, and offers that email “does nothing to build the connective links among people that foster a sense of teamwork, and you need teamwork to innovate.” 

Other chapters in Part I explore elements related to the importance of a simple plan (no more than three measurable goals), values and their adherence (enforce them with a zero-tolerance policy), culture of respect, trust within the team and timely and instructive feedback.  The latter is especially critical as Bryant advises, “these conversations can uncork energy that is otherwise bottled up because people are reluctant to say what’s really on their minds.”

Leadership strategies detailed in Part II offer ways that organizations can build on the foundation established in Part I.  These include strategies related to communication, management, learning and fun.  Communication-related strategies include elements such as consistent (and frequent – there is no such thing as over-communication) communication of the organization’s vision and goals by the leader and encouragement of feedback, in all directions, to surface problems.  Management-related strategies include management training (especially on emotional intelligence), how to run a smarter meeting (hint:  it lies in having an agenda and being clear about decision makers) and actions to be taken to break down silos within organizations.  “Learning” is a key strategy, as, Bryant articulates, “creating an environment of continuing education” will help retain the brightest employees.  Finally, pursuing strategies that promote playfulness are critical, Bryant advises us, because “there’s nothing like some good, honest fun and a few shared laughs to bring people together and provide some glue for the team.”  Strategies on this topic offered by CEOs include pajama days and Disco Friday (breaks during which people dance in the hall).

Reaction and Ideas

What Bryant has assembled is a highly instructive treasure trove of elements that leaders have incorporated into their organizations to help cultivate and sustain creativity and innovation.  And, he has done so in an engaging way – the stories told by CEOs are powerful and detail live application of strategies.  However, every organization is different, so the readers should take caution not to try to apply strategies outright, but to customize them for their organizations.

The book reinforces my belief and experience that the environment, especially the psychological environment in which the creative operates, is one of the biggest drivers of both creativity and innovation.  It also echoes my thinking about the critical role leaders play in deliberately cultivating and sustaining supportive environments, especially as it relates to establishing trust and respect and working as one team.  In my professional life, I have seen the negative impact on creativity and innovation that occurs when these elements are absent and, going forward, I will champion their prioritization.

Where the book falls short of expectations for me is in the lack of connection of these strategies to actual business results related to creativity and innovation.  As a follow on, or follow up, it would be great to see Bryant elicit and summarize measurable impacts of these strategies.  Additionally, Bryant doesn’t provide commentary on key environmental dimensions known to positively impact creativity and innovation in organizations, such as diverse work teams and having autonomy over how one completes one’s work.  It is widely accepted that we learn through story and it would be valuable to include CEO tales on these dimensions.  If Adam Bryant is listening, perhaps this just provided him fodder for a sequel to this important and timely book.

Amabile, T. M., Conti, R., Coon, H., Lazenby, J., & Herron, M. (1996). Assessing the work
environment for creativity. The Academy of Management Journal, 39(5), 1154-1184.

Bryant, A. (2014). Quick and nimble: Lessons from leading CEOs on how to create a culture of innovation. New York, NY:  Times Books.

Ekvall, G. (1996). Organizational climate for creativity and innovation. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 5(1), 105-123.

About Courtney Zwart:
A seasoned innovator with a passion for creativity, Courtney has spent most of her career creating, developing and implementing novel solutions to business problems.  She has held senior level positions in innovation and new product development at both J.P. Morgan Chase and Citibank and currently consults with individuals and organizations on applying creative problem solving processes to business challenges and goals.

Courtney has facilitated creative problem solving sessions, and delivered workshops on deliberate creativity, at Fortune 500 companies including Citibank, HSBC, CVS Caremark Corporation and Loews Corporation. She also instructs on creativity at colleges in the State University of New York (SUNY) system.

She received an MBA in Marketing from Vanderbilt University and a BA from the University of Virginia. She holds certificates in Design Thinking from both the Darden School of Business and the Creative Problem Solving Institute.  She also holds a Master of Science degree in Creativity, Creative Problem Solving and Change Leadership from the internationally recognized Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State.  She can be reached at

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