Earlier this year I spent some time with key HR leaders in a global healthcare firm who were interested in increasing innovation throughout the organization. There was one small problem: I was not to use the word “creative” or “creativity” in the day of learning experiences we were creating. You can imagine this could pose some small difficulty, seeing as the firm who employs me is the Center for Creative Leadership and there are some who might suspect that innovation could be related to creativity in some way.

“What’s wrong with creativity?” I wanted to know. “We don’t need a lot of off-the-wall ideas that don’t give any business value,” was the answer. That seemed legitimate to me. Although I’m a great fan of all kinds of creativity for aesthetic reasons, you might want it connected to the purposes of the organization after all.

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of creativity as one dimension of a process of innovation. If innovation is “converting ideas to numbers” (attributed to Ram Charan) or “people implementing ideas to create value” (from innovation network co-founder, Joyce Wycoff) creativity is the individual component of innovation. In that case we can track the trajectory of creative ideas this way: individuals come up with creative ideas, but they have only emotional appeal (“wow! I sure have interesting ideas!”) until the person takes initiative to communicate the ideas. Even then, they have only aesthetic value. I mean by that others admire them or may retreat into their own thinking as it is stimulated by the idea. However, it is still a long way to innovation from there.  The flood of ideas from centrifugal thinkers (you know who you are) can be overwhelming. The key is the investment someone or a group of someones makes in a new idea to carry through the waves of resistance or to make it stand out from the din in the marketplace of ideas.

Warren Bennis put it this way: “Innovation— any new idea—by definition will not be accepted at first. It takes repeated attempts, endless demonstrations, monotonous rehearsals before innovation can be accepted and internalized by an organization. This requires courageous patience.” If an organization has no way of encouraging and nurturing ideas that can bring high value (and conversely, no way of killing ideas that are parasites for the organization’s energy and attention), then creativity is dangerous. It is dangerous precisely because it is like have a billion dollars on a desert island. It can’t be turned into something you can eat.

We can help business leaders reduce their fear of creativity to the extent that they have help developing systems and cultures that can handle the foment of creative leaders. A nurturing leadership culture and strict processes of accountability are not contradictory, but necessary for the long-term success of our organizations.


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