Since I am primarily confined to a bed right now, I’ve been reading a wonderful book “Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer. I have unlocked the secret to creative thinking and can say with certainty that we do everything humanly possible to make sure we never have a creative spark in the office.

And here’s why. My top five reasons credit unions can’t innovate – in their current state.

#5 – THE PROBLEM: Our offices, board rooms, meeting rooms, lunch rooms are dumps. In my 32 years of working with credit unions  I was lucky enough to work for First Tech CU – where we got it – we needed creative spaces. Our board and meeting rooms were state-of-the art-not-in-the-basement-no fluorescent-light-magic. My marketing department had a play room with bean bag chairs and toys and fun things on the wall. We were allowed, no encouraged, to play.

But most credit unions I’ve worked for or visited have dismal, depressing, cramped, smelly meeting spaces. The most shocking revelation – no natural light. Why do we put our meeting spaces in the basement? The most precious real estate of all – and we hide it in the dungeon?

When it’s time for our weekly meeting the trolls descend to the cave. Now let’s innovate!

THE SOLUTION: Move someone out of a “C” suite and get rid of tables and chairs – bring in a futon and comfy chairs. Paint the walls a bright color. Do a mural of the credit union’s vision. Have some fun!

#4- THE PROBLEM: Agendas, or lack there of. Most meetings I’ve attended as an employee have no agenda. It’s just on the calendar – we need to meet. And so we go around the room seeking the lowest common denominator of a problem and try to solve it. We plan to plan and meet to meet. We “table” things or talk about them offline. The most productive part of any meeting is when it ends. Because then there’s the “meeting after the meeting” (usually in the hallway or bathroom) where the real problems get discussed, but no solutions, no action. Just bitching.

THE SOLUTION: For executive management, the ONLY agenda item for regularly scheduled meetings should be the vision of the credit union. Big and broad and beautiful. Your BHAG. What are we doing right now, tomorrow, this month to work towards our vision?

#3 -THE PROBLEM: An HR professional that views their job as protecting the credit union from an employee filing a lawsuit. We’ve all worked with them. Paranoid watch dogs that scrutinize every piece of clothing, personal item on a desk, internal email, etc. The employee is the enemy and not to be trusted. They dehumanize the staff and break them down to a cog in the machine – one that must obey. They empower with boundaries. They praise with complicated incentive plans. Nothing negative is communicated unless it is documented. Then annually they coordinate the Christmas party or company picnic and wonder why attendance is so low.

THE SOLUTION: Fire them. Get a person in there that truly values people. The whole person. Understanding that the more you truly empower people and make them feel valued the less likely you WILL have a lawsuit. Adolph Coors successfully kept his brewers from every forming a union by simply treating them like human beings. He gave his men time off to be with their wives after having a baby decades before it became law. He paid them well. Quite simply he understood that Coors was nothing without his crew.

#2 THE PROBLEM: Mistaking action for progress. Years ago I was working for a credit union in Eugene, Oregon. Home of the University of Oregon – Go Ducks! I was walking down the hallway to go to the bathroom and I noticed the VP Marketing was just sitting at her desk staring into space. She saw me out of the corner of her eye and snapped to attention. And keep in mind, I was a minion at this CU -not her boss or even her employee. Just a gal that had to pee. She apologized to me for not “working” and joked about her daydreaming. I’ll never forget that – you SHOULD be daydreaming or, creating, or thinking at work. Especially if you’re in a creative position.

I think too often we mistake activity for progress. I mean look at the things we measure. It’s all about volume, output, numbers, results.

THE SOLUTION: Naps. Quiet the mind. Shut down Outlook. According to the book, most innovative CEOs will admit they get their best ideas in the shower. It’s the only time of the day when they have no distractions. They cannot check their iPhone for messages. Can’t be online. Don’t see the piles on their desk. And really can’t be disturbed. Plus the warmth of the water, the clean scent of soap…..ahhhh…..

I was in a brainstorm session with some potential partners last month. We were hitting a creative wall. I excused myself to go to the bathroom (I drink a ton of water). While in there I had an “Aha!” moment. I came back and shared. A few minutes later another person excused themselves – she came back with another piece of the puzzle. Now we saw the pattern and demanded the rest all take bathroom breaks one at a time. It didn’t always work but it clearly showed a pattern. Our minds were free to explore the solution if we were alone and could not be distracted or disturbed.

#1 – THE PROBLEM: No clear vision. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat? I love that saying. But think about it. The most innovative companies have a clear vision – a target audience – they know their enemy (their true competitors) and through innovation have made them irrelevant. Apple. Starbucks. Target. Southwest Airlines. Just to name a few.

A clear sign you have no vision. At your last strategic planning session when the facilitator asked you to list the threats to your organization and you said “Banks, increased regulation, and the economy.” You have no idea what business you are in. No clear vision. No target. No point of differentiation.

THE SOLUTION: Hire someone outside of the credit union industry to facilitate your next planning session. Someone who knows a TON about innovative business models but knows nothing about financial institutions. Someone who cannot read your financial statement. You look at that thing every single day – you know it inside and out – why would you spend precious and expensive time rehashing your numbers? What is your purpose?

As the late great father of management, Peter Drucker would say: The only purpose of business in society is to create and keep a customer. Not to make a profit.

Profit is not the explanation, cause, or rationale of business behavior and business decisions, but rather the test of their validity.

The first step to creativity is to understand why you exist in the first place. How will you create and keep a member?