Innovation Requires Being Creative

A 2008 New York Times article told of how G.M. sacrificed innovation for profits.  The article stated “G.M.’s biggest failing, reflected in a clear pattern over recent decades, has been its inability to strike a balance between those inside the company who pushed for innovation ahead of the curve, and the finance executives who worried more about returns on investment.”   Realizing that continued failure to innovate is the path to extinction, how has G.M. responded?

Well it seems rather than transforming its management and becoming an organization wherein innovation naturally emerges it has decided to try buying it; it has chosen to become a corporate venture capitalist. According to Reuters, though “it can be a smart way to support an employee with a potential invention while sharing the risk,” success is “more the exception than the rule.”

While this may be viewed as an acceptable short-term strategy—a stopgap measure—it mustn’t be the long-term strategy for ensuring viability.  Venture capital firms would attest that success, if and when it happens, takes a while.  Though this may or may not be a feasible strategy, in the mind of its initiators it obviates the need to change—evidence of a crisis of will.  Seemingly lost among them is the fact that long-term viable organizations are the ones with their own innovative capability, not the ones that seek to outsource it.  Lost also is the fundamental principle for sustaining a competitive advantage, do not outsource a critical core capability.

Creativity Lost

Creativity is not solely the quality of artist. Each and every individual can be creative, if he/she is willing and able to embrace and explore uncertainty without fearing loss.  Accordingly, creativity surfaces in those whose focus of attention is not on protecting the ego or of fearing failure or of losing what is.

Being attached to things inhibits the emergence of creative insight.  Creativity requires a direct knowing that is achieved, in the words of Aldus Huxley,  “only by the annihilation of the self-regarding ego.”  Moreover, according to physicist David Bohm, the ability to directly know is a capability human beings naturally possess, as it is readily observed in infants.

So why is creativity readily observed in most young children yet rare in adults?  The very young haven’t yet developed habits of thought that closes the mind and constrains playfulness.  Young children aren’t fearful of the risk in exploring new ideas, likely because they haven’t developed an attachment to what is.

Creativity is more likely evident in those who are keenly aware of, or in touch with, the possibilities and who selflessly engage in the activity for its own sake—just like children do in play.  In short, when the job is a joy the likelihood of the creative spirit emerging is greatly increased.  Creativity emerges when the mind is open to exploring the possibilities and not restricted by ego-consciousness, organizational culture and/or social context.

Being creative necessitates being a free critical thinker. We must be willing to detach from what habit of thought would provide; we must be willing to resist the allure of its certitude, and to be playful in thinking about the ideas that unfold. Accordingly, being creative requires a willingness to swim in the ocean of possibilities and embrace the waves of ideas floating beyond the shores of the familiar.

Leadership Implications

Leaders of organizations wishing for innovation must facilitate the emergence of a culture wherein normative behavior includes challenging what is—there can be no sacred ideas.  There are no short cuts! It is something that can’t be remedied by simply throwing money at it.  It requires a transformation of the business of business.

Those in authority (a.k.a. the leadership) must create the space in the workplace—physical, psychological and temporal space—wherein people can freely exercise their capabilities without fear or constraint.  But the absence of fear doesn’t mean there is a void it means there is caring, respect, understanding and support.  Those in authority must provide an atmosphere conducive to learning; without learning creativity cannot emerge. Even the best seed won’t develop or flower if thrown on rock.

Because creativity along with its offspring innovation are essential capabilities for the viability of a business, it is counterproductive to provide experiences—educational and workplace—that require people to comply with one prescribed way of thinking. It is also counterproductive to focus all attention on and commitment to getting results, especially short-term results. Quoting Thomas Edison, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.” All for the sake of supporting an authority’s desire for control, organizations are positioned to fail.

As we live, develop and become acculturated in organizational and societal cultures that hold material gain as supreme, we tend to lose touch with our creative spirit.  Oh most people are in favor of innovation, until of course it threatens their familiar world—fear of innovation usually sets in.

9 thoughts on “Innovation Requires Being Creative

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