How to Make Creativity Contagious

Management Today, March 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

How to Make Creativity Contagious


Companies may identify fresh thinking as a core value, but this doesn't square with a corporate strategy in which minimising risk is seen as a virtue. How can an organisation adapt its culture to embrace innovation? Stefan Stern reports.

Somewhere in the machine code that made possible the great gift to humanity that is Microsoft PowerPoint, there must be a line that generates a ready-made presentation on creativity and innovation. We have probably all had to sit through it at one time or another.

You know the sort of thing: 'Incremental improvement isn't good enough any more ... we need crazy ideas for crazy times ... kill or be killed

It is little wonder that we cling on to this metaphysical notion of creativity.

It goes right back to the very first things we are ever taught. According to the Book of Genesis, God was the original, ultimate Creative: 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep ...'

If only the good Lord could look down as kindly on the creative efforts of us mere mortals. But that is the trouble with creativity and the Creationist mythology that underpins it: we are constantly waiting for the next miracle.

In business, you will wait a long time for miracles. Coming up with new and successful ideas requires effective management and hard work - perspiration as much as inspiration. What are the real challenges that businesses and organisations face if they are ever going to unleash the creative genius lurking within their walls?

'Every company I meet has identified innovation and creativity as core values,' says David Walker of international creativity consultancy Synectics, 'but around 90% of them do nothing about it. Their behaviour just doesn't allow creativity to emerge.'

The problem here is fundamental. The processes that businesses have traditionally wanted to hone and develop on the path to operational excellence run counter to creativity itself. 'We once assessed breakthrough innovations over a 10-year period for a large packaged goods company, to find out where their best ideas had come from,' says Walker. The answer was that the firm's top-performing innovations had all come from a small number of people - universally described by their colleagues as 'difficult to work with' - all of whom had subsequently left the company.

This is one of the key difficulties that corporations wrestle with - creativity can be disruptive and is not always compatible with the smooth running of a well-oiled commercial machine. Explains Walker: 'You get promoted in business for getting things done on time, for driving out inefficiency and being tough on costs. Reducing risk is seen as a virtue.

Minimising change and uncertainty is good. Management's watchwords are 'control and optimise', and 'remove surprises'.

'But creativity is about creating surprises,' he adds. 'The creative world view runs counter to the operational world view. Creative people want to make up their own new rules, see how things can be different, experiment in the marketplace, and then migrate that back to the operational side of things.'

One of the other big problems with the Biblical perception of creativity is that it's a capricious and supernatural feat. If we have the gift, then - kerpow! - we are supposed to cry: Eureka! Click our fingers and something will just happen. But the truth is that - like evolution - creativity is hard work and takes time.

'There is a crisis in capitalism about all this,' says Professor James Woudhuysen, the leading design and innovation guru. 'There is panic that we are not being innovative enough. We are constantly being told to 'think outside the box'. What is wrong with a bit of 'inside the box' thinking? You have to do some hard work here. I look forward to the day when a CEO will stand up and tell us to think inside the box. …

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