ArLyne's Diamonds

A running commentary of ideas

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Innovation and Creativity

A few years ago, I conducted research with approximately 50 C level executives here in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the country. I sought to learn how they managed for creativity in their organizations – and where they wanted to achieve it. 

I operationally defined creativity as a process and innovation as product. Creativity is wanted everywhere in an organization but there is little done to encourage it, and much apparently done to thwart it. Innovation – e.g. specific product design – is allowed in specific groups, such as R&D, but is often ignored when the potential for it is “bubbling up” outside of R&D groups.

Yet, throughout the world, competition is based on creativity and innovation. You’d think we would design our entire educational systems to encourage new thinking, trial and error, experimentation, creativity and innovation among our youth. But, mostly we don’t. Mostly we demand memorization, conformity, and quiet unobtrusive behavior.

I’m going to share some personal stories with you – to make my point.

My mother convinced the New York City school system to allow me to enter Kindergarten (the year before first grade in public schools here) one-half year earlier than the usual acceptance date. I was not yet five years old. In a conversation with my mother, in my hearing, my kindergarten teacher said, “A piece of her tongue ought to be cut out because she asks too many questions.” How’s that for an introduction to all that education could and should be? I learned to hate school as a child.

Years later, when my hatred dulled, I became a college student. I was taking an undergraduate course in The Philosophy of Religion which was actually an introductory course comparing many religions of the world. Having read all the great books of the Western World, and many others describing eastern philosophies in the years before I ever entered college, I was excited to take this class. Our instructor informed us that we were to be given essay exams. That made me even more excited, because I knew the material, I had all those years of personal study into philosophy, psychology, politics and religion and I wrote well and quickly.

We had our first essay exam. I had a wonderful time incorporating information from the text, the class lectures, my other reading and my own ideas. I synthesized and wrote what I considered to be a brilliant essay exam. Imagine my horror and shock when my paper was returned with the grade of B.  I thought I deserved an A+.

I made an appointment to see the professor and asked him why I had received such a low grade. He looked at his notes and basically informed me that I had not mentioned specific words and phrases and thus he didn’t know for sure that I had read the text and listened to the lectures. I asked him if he couldn’t surmise from my synthesizing that I had not only read and heard, but had understood and used the information creatively. He responded that he wanted the exact words so he could grade accurately.

From that time on I regurgitated the text and my notes and received “A”s.

These are two examples of many from my personal experiences as a student in New York City (Kindergarten) and Silicon Valley (college). 

We here in the United States are supposed to be freer and more creative and innovative than people in many other parts of the world. I think we are losing our edge – if we haven’t already lost it. We’ve lost so much of it that it now seems unusual when others say, “Innovation is the road to the future.”  (Innovations: The Road to the Future, an advertisement by BMW.)

In other countries students are stifled even more than I was. Some educational systems still teach by recitation and rote-memorization. Students are expected to accept as given the information they are provided without question. 

Yet, there is a demand for creativity and innovation in these countries as well. It was the needs of Singapore that got me interested in doing the research I did in the first place. Singapore was looking for ways to become more competitive in business and was encouraging consultants to come and teach their educators how to create more opportunities for innovation and creativity in the classroom. I was not one of the consultants they selected, because I was not famous enough at that time.

I understand that the primary way in which they attempted to inspire creativity and innovation was to mandate it for one hour a day in the classroom. I sure hope that was only a rumor – or maybe only a temporary solution to start them on the road to freeing their students from out-loud recitation and rote memorization.

The potential for creativity exists in almost all of us. Watch little children at play. Yet, it gets shamed – ridiculed – even beaten out of us as we are taught to conform, to behave, to “be like other children.” Over time we force most children out of their spontaneous creative selves and into the mold that is consistent for each culture at each point in time. Uniformity becomes more desirable than uniqueness.

Technical skills – math, science, chemistry – all demanding a high degree of “absolutism” are the educational paths that are considered most desirable and potentially most lucrative. We stifle and mold and get laser beam focused brilliant technical minds – but we’ve made it almost impossible for them to “think outside the box.” It’s hard to break free when you’ve been forced inside a box all your life. We discover how much we’ve lost when we look around and have no one to promote into management – because they’ve not only lost their zest for creativity, they’ve been so laser beam focused that they’ve never developed the people skills necessary for good management.

In my work I work hard to help people take risks and try new things – to stretch – to play – to once again let their creative minds find a path. It’s not always easy. There is so much fear. Fear of mistakes. Fear of ridicule. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of punishment. Fear of credibility. Fear of loss of respect. Fear of losing the job.

When you look inside highly successful companies you learn that there are only a handful of people that are the creative minds in those companies. They are people who earlier in life had earned the reputation of being rebels, non-conformists, and even weirdos. Yet, it’s those minds that open the eyes of others to see things in a different way – to create – to be innovative.

How do we tap these qualities in others? How do we allow people to leave the safety of their conforming lives to try new things? 

I have a friend who won’t learn anything new. She grew up needing to be perfect. People with a need for perfection are risk-aversive because if they don’t excel at something new they consider themselves failures. There is no freedom within their psyches to try and err and try again.

It has to be OK for a little kid to color outside the lines. To paint a purple cow. To show the sun as bigger and brighter than the scene below. It has to be OK for students to synthesize their learning rather than making it easier for the teacher to grade the paper by using only the rote-memorized words. It has to be more than OK – but highly desirable – for people within an organization to have opportunities to figure out better and more effective ways to do the same old boring tasks.

One of my clients had as one of their values: “It’s OK to make mistakes – as long as they don’t get to the customers.”  It was important. It allowed people to try new things. It didn’t mean that people could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to – if they wanted to change a process they needed to do a pilot project and if it worked well get management approval for any major changes. If they wanted to explore a new software system, or develop a new product they had to do it in time that was allotted to them after they completed their “deliverables.” BUT, they were encouraged to try.

Which reminds me of another personal story – and I apologize if it seems as though I am bragging.

I spent much of my youth and early twenties working in offices as a secretary, bookkeeper, “gal Friday” (meaning one person office doing everything), executive secretary, office manager, credit and collections, and eventually efficiency expert. My college and graduate education was all at nights while I worked full time days.

I learned to be efficient. Really, I learned how to turn my laziness into creative solutions to get things done faster, quicker, more accurately and more effectively. Instead of doing the work “the way we’ve always done it,” I looked for simpler ways and often found them. I learned to do more with less – to work smarter not harder – and it paid off in many ways.

I became (as I said before) an efficiency expert in my early twenties. Now, many years later, I streamline systems, re-engineer, encourage and manage change, and work with individuals “helping them get the best out of themselves and others.”

It’s all because of that Kindergarten teacher. Hating her, hating what she said and hating school because of it, they couldn’t stifle me and force me to conform. I attended, but ignored them. I learned how to cut school as often as possible. I was skipped because they didn’t know what else to do with me. I stayed relatively free – and today am accused of being creative and innovative.

So, what’s the moral to the story?

If we want to be competitive as a nation, as a company, as a society, we need to start by allowing young children to continue to explore and express themselves creatively, while at the same time having them learn what we need them to learn. It’s about balance.

In the workplace we need to allow time and create not only opportunities but pathways allowing creativity and innovation to be recognized – not just hope they bubble up in spite of middle managers’ apparent need to put the lid on the bubbles.

You can’t mandate creativity and innovation. You can only encourage these by reducing fear of making a mistake and being ridiculed or punished for it.

Courage is the first of human qualities
because it is the quality that guarantees all the others.
Winston Churchill


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