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
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
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
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
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
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
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.