- Logic can solve problems, but creativity often requires a leap of the imagination
- Creative ideas often don’t make any sense at first
- Just because an idea is illogical doesn’t mean its ‘bad’
During my recent visit to Malawi I had the pleasure of speaking at seminars and workshops to a large number of charming and very interesting people. My aim was to try and provide some of the latest thinking on Creativity and Innovation in an organisational context and to try and encourage the people I met to use alternative modes of thinking.
Keen readers will remember the 'How do you get a giraffe into a fridge' test that I used last year (click on the giraffe to the right to revisit it). I used this on my audiences and was pleasantly surprised to find that answers were richer and more numerous than elsewhere. It is not right to say that Managers get the answers wrong but their responses are generally poorer than young children. My African friends did very well indeed so I began to wonder why this was. Was it a coincidence?
One of the central themes of Creativity is play, and education systems are designed to help us pass exams and be less creative. We then have to undergo a degree of 'unlearning' to be playful in the workplace. Keen followers of TED (see www.TED.com) may be familiar with the thoughts of Sir Ken Robinson. Click here to view his moving and entertaining talk, but only if you have 20 minutes to spare!
In our so called developed countries we have extensive educational systems, whilst in developing countries the systems are often constrained to keeping young people in school and teaching basic skills well. Yet there has been an explosion in many developing nations within Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. In Cuba, trade embargoes have meant that motor engineers have created substitute brake fluid from shampoo and sugar whilst I have seen young boys in Africa change tractor tyres with only a few levers, a hand pump and some soapy water (no mean feat).
This natural creativity is present in us all when we are born but seems to remain only in countries where there are 'light touch' education systems. You may be thinking 'what about the effect of culture?' This is where things get a little complicated. In young people the two main drivers of Creativity are:
- An education system that does not stifle or judge
- A culture that allows play and lets 'children be children'
As we grow up, different factors come into play which are mainly cultural. This often means that:
- In developed countries we are keen to be creative and innovative but we have lost the tools to work this way – our solution is to undertake even more training
- In developing countries, people have the natural tools but social pressures sometimes inhibit the ability to be critical or express radical thoughts openly – some people are just too polite. The solution may just be to overcome these personal barriers
In my view, the developing countries could have the edge but it will be a close run thing. The situation is obviously more complicated but these points should give us all food for thought. Any feedback is always welcome!
I have my own unique model of Innovation which helps with obtaining 'buy in' and best of all, it leads to a method of measuring the capacity to innovate which is a much more sensitive measure than waiting for KPIs to change. I had been puzzling for a while about how to model the spread of Innovation and the transfer of knowledge as well as other issues such as communication and trust. Little did I know that I had already considered this without really understanding.
Recently, I attended a talk by Dr Kelly Page of Cardiff University about New Media and Web 2.0. I became particularly excited by some of the concepts and analysis surrounding Social Media such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube.
In an (ideal) Innovation culture there is little or no hierarchy and knowledge flows at varying rates and often 'on demand'. There are groups of interest and depending on technology, trust relationships can also be built. Rather than humans adapting to technology (remember the first mobile phones, the birth of the Internet), technology is now being developed to match and mimic the behaviour of groups of people in a social environment.
Analysis of this behaviour is interesting. Looking at traffic on say Twitter, a group interested in a particular topic will have what looks like random connections. These are not random and are built upon interest, trust and knowledge amongst other things. Within Organisational Development we might say that these connections do not map onto an organisational structure chart but map onto informal advice, trust and communications networks.
So interactions within Social Media look like those in an ideal Innovation culture, and playing with this idea we can adapt our model for a range of situations. But these changes are incremental. We know that introducing certain technologies into society often changes society itself (electricity, telephone, motor car) so will introducing technologies such as Social Media actually lead to changes in society and in particular our businesses?
The answer is most definitely yes. By trying extreme versions of our new model we can safely say that hierarchies will die and that concepts such as vision and values will truly have shared ownership. Ultimately it will make our businesses more profitable as those working in them will be empowered and will all share responsibility for success. Those who cling onto the old hierarchies will find themselves bypassed in advice, trust and communications networks, they will be lonely. Watch this space for new developments (or should I say MySpace?).
Normally we tend to diagnose failings within our organisations and then combat them with remedial programmes that often dismantle and then rebuild certain aspects of the organisation. Note that these characteristics are independent of the individuals that work within the organisation.
A well publicised example of such a failing was the accusation of institutionalised racism that was leveled at the Metropolitan Police here in the UK. No one individual was accused of being racist but the structure, processes, distribution of power, expressions of vision and beliefs was deemed to be supportive of racism.
So what might some of the characteristics of an institutional failing be and how can they be used to help us? I have alluded to one or two already but here is a short list:
- Strong beliefs and a mechanism for communicating them
- Well or clearly defined structures and processes
- Power centred on a few individuals
- An active ‘grapevine’ for informal communications
- Well aligned communications, trust and advice networks
- High degree of focus (not necessarily concern for) on people
This is not an exhaustive list but is representative of many undesirable institutional failings. Our natural tendency is to remove such characteristics through one or more change programmes and possibly staff development of some sort. For a large organisation the changes must be far reaching, difficult to plan (and control) and of course expensive. Had we been looking at undesirable furniture or waste paper then we would automatically think of recycling. Why not recycle these unwanted organisational characteristics and use them for a positive purpose?
One possible idea might be to create ‘institutionalised creativity’, a type of creativity that is inbuilt and pervades every part of the organisation in such a way that employees do not consciously think about it. Lets make use of a strong beliefs system (but change the beliefs), take advantage of clearly defined structures (but turn them into looser frameworks), use the company grapevine (as part of this process), be focused (but change this slightly) and make use of the centres of power (but make these sponsors of creative or innovative behaviour).
Such a programme may not be easy, but is it better than turning a whole organisation upside down?
Governments and most businesses will readily understand the term ‘infrastructure’. It is a collective term for roads, railways, airports, ports, telecommunications networks, supply pipelines etc. It is all to do with movement and these networks are all ‘hard’ i.e. they are made out of steel, concrete and copper and they can all be touched.
These networks all have one other common characteristic, whatever flows through them is rigidly controlled. Sometimes in straight lines and some times curves but always controlled by a boundary of concrete, steel, copper or some other tangible resource.
So what has this got to do with my organisation you may ask? One of the keys to the success of modern businesses, and the way to beat the current recession is Innovation. Innovation depends greatly on assets that are intangible, we cannot touch them. These include creativity, know how, intuition and cultural issues to name but a few. Many would identify these as ‘social’ or ‘human’ capital. The exact terminology is irrelevant, it is the ideas and knowledge of individuals that is important which can be enhanced by interaction. It is also independent of work so the term ‘social’ means inclusive rather than outside of the workplace.
To innovate successfully, these things too must move around both our businesses and our societies. Attempts have often been made in the past to codify these ideas, transmit them to another place and then try and extract both the message and the meaning of what has been received. Try having an email exchange with an angry colleague and you will understand the problems.
When we innovate, we also want things to travel in ways that are not constrained by boundaries and which certainly do not travel in straight lines. Just like the ripples on a pond we might wish some things to be broadcast, such as company culture. And like a networked computer system we will need some sort of storage and perhaps some form of maintenance function to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
When thinking of communicating within a corporate environment we often think of sending things out (pushing) or receiving from others (pulling). What about when things just sort of slosh about, and proceed at their own pace or when disruptive events occur and we need a system that repairs itself? We need a new type of network, one that is invisible and which connects everybody to everyone else. It must allow meaning, intuition, creativity and emotion to flow with no bottlenecks and no burst pipes. What we need therefore is the right sort of ‘network’ – a Soft Infrastructure.
Based on concepts such as coaching, action learning and knowledge agents this might be somewhat strange, but it is all possible. Can we afford not to install such networks in our organisations or in society in general?
Many Innovators or sponsors of Innovation will be keen to extol the virtues of traditional ‘hard’ networks such as broadband, telephone etc. It is clear that ‘soft’ networks will work on their own and that their working can be enhanced by technology but it is clear that technology on its own cannot do the job so why spend millions on copper and fibre when the components of the soft networks, people, are already in place? In the current economic crisis surely now is the right time to make the right connections?
Whilst talking to many people about innovation there is one question that they all ask. ‘Do you have experience of of working in my industry sector?’. Quite often the answer is is ‘no’ and the conversation ends there as many people are risk averse. I have always maintained that the good innovation models (mine included of course!) can be used in any industry and any country.
The drivers for innovation, the support processes that need to be put in place and any other strategic concept are all transferable. What is not always transferable is the local detail e.g. how do you manage knowledge locally, impart ideas to those from a different culture or even run training courses. I always maintain that the greatest experts in any industry are the company themselves. They have the knowledge, they need a model. Why pay huge fees to buy often contradictory advice from a company or consultant that claims to have industry specific knowledge.
So buy my model please, it works! But what are the most common local differences you ask? Here is a short and definitely not a definitive list:
- Time – Arab cultures have a very different model of time whilst many Latin American, Mediterranean and Far Eastern cultures are less precise than in the UK.
- Risk – the same cultures who are less precise may also tend to be less risk averse and more playful.
- Ideas – some cultures readily adopt well formed ideas and in some you will need to plant seeds and let them grow.
- Business etiquette – no matter how creative you are, certain norms will need to be followed, not because they are part of business but because they are social and in many cultures business/social boundaries are blurred.
- Groups – there are varying expectations as to how groups or teams form, what their purposes are and what is expected by/from them.
The list is not exhaustive and is based on my dealings with other cultures in the fields of creativity and innovation only. For in depth advice please consult an expert in your chosen culture.
The chances are that you do! Innovation is viewed as a “soft” science, hard to measure and hard to define. Other business functions such as purchasing, finance and manufacturing are easier to define and seem much more established and “concrete”. Purchasing, finance and manufacturing are accepted business functions with hierarchies and responsibilities. When we talk about innovation, however, the measurements, metrics and operations are less obvious. Few firms have an “innovation department” and even less have metrics around innovation or systems and processes to support innovation.
That’s why people are so important in an innovation initiative. Much of the work of innovation is at the “fuzzy front end” where there may not be as many clear cut milestones or metrics, and traditional transactional systems can’t provide much value. It is this ambiguity that is handled so well by people. In business as in life , the important things boil down to people.
I ask you to go to the cinema to watch a film and you say “who’s in it?” If you are browsing in a bookshop you will read the jacket notes to see who has recommended it and what the critics say about it. If you join a new company, project or team, you will ask “who is the boss, what are they like?” and “who else is working on this?” A venture capitalist’s main concern is the management team—who will be making this venture (and my money) work? The focus is always on people.
Innovation is an outgrowth of the people and the culture of the firm. If people are encouraged to innovate and compensated and motivated appropriately, the culture and processes will follow. If they are not motivated or compensated to be innovative, no amount of systems or processes will drive an innovation initiative. The people are the key to the success of innovation.
Why focus on people? Success in any endeavor is based on having the right people doing the right things the right way at the right time. If you want to implement a successful innovation initiative, you need the right people in place to succeed. People are going to implement the processes and systems to make things work. You need to identify those people. Additionally, different people bring different skill sets and viewpoints to any project, so exposing ideas and innovations to a broad team within your firm can improve the chances of success with new ideas. Finally, a few people who truly believe in an idea can overcome many barriers and management hurdles.
Just as Meredith Belbin defined his Team Roles, so there are a number of people that you need to make your innovation initiative work. The second part of this article – Innovation, the people you need describes the characteristics of these people.