From Whence Creativity Emerges

Alessandro Di Fiore, CEO of ECSI, reports that a recent ECSI survey found “68% of business leaders firmly believe that great innovators are born and cannot be made.” Alessandro also notes in a HBR blog post “scientific evidence of the last 30 years has proven just the opposite.” So is this just a little factoid that almost 7 in 10 business leaders get wrong and that matters little—like who cares, it’s no big deal?  So what would a leader who holds this misunderstanding do or not do? 


Most certainly he/she would not even think about how the organizational environment influences the actualization of people’s potential.  Likely he/she would look for creativity—the antecedent of innovation—from those few individuals who he/she deems genetics had been kind.  Such a leader would also dismiss the creative potential everyone else could provide.  Interesting work goes to those few thought to have the creative gene and the rest (of us) get the boring stuff.  In effect, what such a leader would be doing is limiting the potential of the organization.


Its Inherent Not Incented

As discussed in a previous posting, creativity is an inherently natural human capability; young children are remarkable in exhibiting this human attribute of mind. Why do they exhibit it and yet most adults don’t?  Young children haven’t yet developed habits of thought that closes the mind and constrains playfulness. If only work was more like play! Children haven’t yet been assimilated or acculturated into a culture were fear-based management practices are seen as best practice and risk averse action is the normative behavior.


To be fair, the suppression of the creative spirit most often starts at the time the child begins formal education and its pummeling continues throughout, thus preparing each for the world of work in organizations. Captains of industry assert that they seek creative minds while at the same time implement systems of management that inhibit the very thing they say they wish they had.  Why else would most innovation be seen predominantly emerging from outside, not inside, the organization?  That is, the greatest influencing factor toward the emergence of creativity is the environment within which an individual lives not genetics.


Each and every person is creative—they likely demonstrated it as a child—and can therefore exhibit creativity as an adult if each is encouraged and facilitated to hold a question and thus to embrace and explore that question—this is where the environment and leadership have a role.  Each can hold a question if the organization is a system for learning and not merely a system for profit.  When profit concerns dominate then efforts toward creativity and a better future (i.e. progress) are most often abandoned.


Culture Is Capability

While every organization self-actualizes, not every organization actualizes its greatest potential.  Because of the organization’s culture many are limited, not in potential but in what’s likely to emerge.


The fact that the environment has far more to do with creativity emerging suggests that far more creative potential would surface in organizations if those in authority attended to providing an environment, a culture, supporting creative emergence.


Because culture is the order defining collective mind of the organization, wherein the in-practice shared values and beliefs reside, it influences perception and informs behavior of all members.  Hence, because culture circumscribes capability, it essentially defines capability.  Culture can either facilitate or frustrate creative emergence. For example, an organization that is structured and managed to be a system for learning would have a far different culture than one that was structured and managed as a system for profit largely because of the markedly different in-practice shared values and beliefs.


Leading Creativity

In 1965 Abraham Maslow provided a management policy, Eupsychian Management, identifying essential assumptions upon which to build one’s management practice—today we might call this leadership.  Some of the 36 assumptions directly relevant to creativity include:

  • Assume everyone to be trusted
  • Assume in all your people the impulse to achieve
  • Assume there is no dominance-subordination hierarchy…
  • Synergy is also assumed
  • Assume an active trend to self-actualization–freedom to effectuate one’s own ideas, to select one’s own friends and one’s own kind of people, to “grow,” to try things out, to make experiments and mistakes, etc.
  • Assume that everyone prefers to feel important, needed, useful, successful, proud, respected, rather than unimportant, interchangeable anonymous, wasted, unused, expendable, disrespected.
  • Assume a tendency to improve things
  • Assume that growth occurs through delight and through boredom
  • Assume that fairly well-developed people would rather be interested than be bored
  • Assume that fairly well-developed people would rather create than destroy
  • All human beings, not only eupsychian ones, prefer meaningful work to meaningless work

Despite the guidance from Maslow as well as that of many others (such as Deming, Ackoff), in general management practitioners remain committed to command and control methods.  Hence leadership and organizations wherein creative potential is actualized are rare!

In those rare instances, leaders of organizations where creative thinking and high performance are evident understand at a deep level that the assumptions they make and the practices they take are critical to the space they provide for others to exercise their capability.  Effective leaders know that culture is capability! Therefore they know that to facilitate the emergence of a culture wherein trust, collaborative efforts, the spirit of quality and meaningfulness abound begins with an insightful and vivifying vision.   They know that an organization absent of an enlivening vision expunges meaning from the work of the organization and with it creativity.


Because people’s ideas enable a business to remain viable, leaders know the importance of modeling the behavior they wish to see throughout the organization; of they them selves being open to creative ideas.  And correspondingly to not put into practice processes and systems that inhibit the creative spirit.  For example knowing the creative process is not cost efficient, they won’t put in place processes that require them to be managed as a cost or by cost alone.


The creative process is iterative, non-linear and unpredictable.  Accordingly it does not always result in material gain or achieve the desired outcome, so management practices holding people accountable for results would not be the way of facilitating its emergence.


However, while many ideas will not produce material gain entertaining all ideas will ensure a productive flow of ideas—ideas bring about more ideas. An organization where this is understood likely will reflect a culture invested in the future—an investment oriented culture—wherein the short-term doesn’t obstruct the long-view.


In such an organization there would not only be a general openness to ideas for improvement that challenge the way things are thus enabling the organization to remain relevant and viable, the work itself would be challenging.. In such an organization you would find people experiencing joy through their work and the creative spirit manifesting throughout.

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