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A Wicked, Tough, Playful Mix

Workplace creativity at these superfast Alabama companies includes such diverse components as “wicked cool,” “gritty toughness” and “playful.”

Mike Bell and his team at Austal USA found a creative solution to U.S. Navy needs, the “wicked cool” LCS in production behind him.

Mike Bell and his team at Austal USA found a creative solution to U.S. Navy needs, the “wicked cool” LCS in production behind him.

Photo by Todd Douglas

It was the need for creativity — for something new — that resulted in the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), which is built in Austal USA’s Mobile production facility. Austal doesn’t necessarily look at it as building warships — in their view, their job is building innovation. 

“We are a combination of Apple and Harley Davidson,” says Mike Bell, Austal’s vice president of operations in Mobile. “We build a state-of-the-art product that goes super-fast and looks wicked cool. We make the most advanced aluminum war ships in the entire world, and these ships are fostering creativity in how the Navy can function in the 21st century.”

Designed for use in coastal waters, the LCS has an aluminum trimaran hull that’s lighter and provides significantly better fuel efficiency than a conventional steel mono hull. The LCS can cruise at a fast 45 knots and has open computer architecture that can support multiple mission packages, including the latest in drone capabilities. 

Creativity usually isn’t associated with warships, but things aren’t always as they appear.  Mention creativity and thoughts of individuals like Andy Warhol, Michelangelo or Beethoven might be top of mind. But several leading businesses in Alabama see creativity and innovation as the same thing, and successful innovation in the work place is almost always the result of teamwork by creative people, not individual genius. What’s more, the best creative work occurs within a definite structure, not in a free-wheeling, undisciplined environment.

LCS at sea.

Photo courtesy of Austal USA

History shows that most creativity and innovation is the result of solving a problem, says David King, executive vice president of simulations and technology solutions at AEgis Technologies in Huntsville, which specializes in modeling and simulation and micro/nanoscale technology development.

“Some individuals might come up with great ideas or innovations on their own,” King says. “But in a business setting, creativity and innovation usually result from a team of creative people working together within a framework of real-world constraints. You can’t just throw a lot of money at a problem and tell (creative employees) to go off and do something without giving them some boundaries. I want people to solve problems, but they have to do it within a time frame and a budget.”

Given the accelerated growth in technology, simply staying ahead of the curve is an art form in itself. According to Steve Hill, president and CEO at AEgis Technologies, “If we’re not being creative with our customers and understanding their real needs – and those needs will continue to change – then we’re going to get left behind. It’s critical that we continue to pursue and invest in creativity and innovation.”

That is also the case at Huntsville-based Adtran, which provides networking and communications equipment that enables voice, data, video and Internet communications across broadband and business communications. To illustrate — when Netflix went from mailing movies to its customers on DVDs and started streaming them for television viewing, service providers such as AT&T and Century Link — both of which are Adtran customers — had to be able to respond immediately to the huge increase of video data carried on their networks. “The dynamics of the network changed overnight, because of one change that Netflix put in place,” says Gary Bolton, Adtran’s vice president of global marketing.

It was the same when the iPhone came out, followed by the iPad — huge, sudden impacts on Adtran’s customers’ communications networks. “Now, everything needs to be connected, and it needs to be connected in a pervasive manner,” Bolton says. “It is impossible for our customer base to anticipate what is going to be the next iPhone or Netflix or iPad. But they have to respond to changes immediately and not only be able to respond but to be able to take advantage of these major shifts in the way people live, work and play.”

The “wall of patents” at the Huntsville headquarters of Adtran Inc.

Photo courtesy of Adtran

One of the dominant images on Adtran’s Web site shows a multi-colored chameleon atop a multi-colored telecom cable with a headline that says: “Reinventing the Network/The Only Constant is Change.” It’s no exaggeration. For example, Adtran demonstrated its System Level Vectoring at an October trade show in Amsterdam — a system that allows for more bandwidth across an existing telephone line. “We’re finding ways to provide more capacity,” Bolton says.

Adtran and AEgis Technologies both utilize Agile project management principles, which allow for innovative changes to be incorporated along the way, not at the end of a project.  At both companies, the culture allows — almost demands — change on a daily basis.

“We expect every job to evolve,” says Bolton “Every day, we try to figure out what we need to do differently today because our world is changing at an exponential pace. There is no job in our company that is the same as last year.”

King says that project teams at AEgis Technologies meet daily and each team member is asked three questions: What did you do yesterday? What are you doing today? What barriers are keeping you from doing your job? 

“If someone starts to fall behind, other team members will do whatever is necessary to get them back on track,” King says.

The overall atmosphere is quite different at Fort Payne-based GameTime, known mainly for making playground and outdoor sports equipment. But teamwork is still an integral ingredient for success.

GameTime’s Tom Norquist thinks play is a basic component of creativity. Here he’s checking out one of the company-designed playgrounds.

Photo courtesy of GameTime

“We believe in play,” says Tom Norquist, GameTime’s senior vice president of marketing, design and product development. GameTime’s headquarters exudes a playful atmosphere that includes colorful furniture, whiteboard walls, product prototypes, quotes of the day and personalized sticky notes. “Creative environments help employees deal with the normal stress and day-to-day pressures that most aggressive, successful businesses experience,” Norquist says.

“We encourage all of our employees to constantly be suggesting how we can improve. Our employees are the strength of our creativity, and we constantly remind them that there are no bad ideas when it comes to play and recreational equipment.”

Along with open, honest internal communications, innovative companies are always looking for ways to improve. That includes seeking outside opinions. AEgis Technologies, for example, hired Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Management to conduct an innovation course to train the company’s staff on creativity, innovation process and new product development. 

Another thing innovative companies have in common is that they place a premium on hiring creative people who will be the right fit for a given kind of work.

Grades and majors are obviously considered, depending on the position to be filled, and different companies have different approaches for evaluating and hiring prospects.  In general, however, they are looking to hire inquisitive people who like to “tinker” and who will be passionate about their work. But there are no guarantees.

“There’s a difference in being creative and being productive,” says Mark Gillespie, chairman of the University of South Alabama College of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology. “To some extent, creativity and high-level insight is born, but to go along with that requires what I’ve heard described as toughness. You just have to get into a problem and show really gritty toughness and grind away at it. If you’re in the right frame of mind and with the right group of people, you might have that flash of insight.”

UAB Public Health’s Dr. Max Michael who found space to foster creative thinking.

Photo courtesy of UAB

It’s called The Edge of Chaos, a meeting area designed for creativity on the upper floor of the Lister Hill Library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The brainchild of Dr. Max Michael, dean of UAB’s School of Public Health, The Edge of Chaos opened in late fall of 2012. Since January, more than 10,000 people have used the space and some 500 meetings have been held there. The Edge of Chaos features open areas and artwork that are intended to encourage discussions and idea exchanges.

Michael’s pursuit of meeting space for UAB’s School of Public Health led to the development of The Edge of Chaos. “We got the name from (innovation expert/author) Steven Johnson, who says that the best ideas come from a point on the edge of perfect order and chaos,” Michael says.

David Hooks, director of The Edge of Chaos, says the facility has been used by a diverse list of groups. For example, neurologists, electrical engineers and information technologists have come together there to discuss potential genetic causes of Parkinson’s disease. The Birmingham Museum of Art, neighborhood associations and others have also used the facility — the common denominator being groups in search of ways to better the community, Hooks says.

In a strict business sense, The Edge of Chaos serves those who are in the first of four cycles — creativity/innovation — of starting a business. This is when ideas, opportunities and challenges are discussed — when the seed for starting a business is created. The Edge of Chaos complements UAB’s Innovation Institute, which serves new start-ups, and the Innovation Depot, which provides space for new businesses through short-term leases. The fourth and last step is for a business to go out and operate in space of its own, Hooks explains.

Although it is a new facility, Hooks and Michael both view The Edge of Chaos as a potentially significant addition to UAB’s efforts to better the Birmingham — and potentially the world — community. “I think UAB, and the university in a generic sense, is where the next generation of ideas and motivation should be coming from,” Michael says.

Charlie Ingram is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

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