Before we can discuss how organizations encourage or block their potential for creativity, it is important to understand the nature of creativity. Because creativity is a characteristic of human mind, we will start by briefly discussing how the human mind manages information to create new ideas.
Edward De Bono, “father” of Lateral Thinking, explains that the human mind works like a computer with a very efficient algorithm to create, store and subsequently use concepts. The essential mechanism is this: the human mind tends to integrate new pieces of information as part of larger, more complex models. As new information is received, the brain automatically adds those new pieces of information to already existing models, which slowly evolve into larger, more complex and solid models. This is very efficient, because this allows the brain to work with complete models instead of the individual pieces.
As models grow in complexity, the new pieces of information add to the already existing model, maintaining the original structure untouched. One piece after another, the brain adds the new information to the existing structure, bringing as a result a new concept that the mind considers efficient.
New pieces of information create automatically new models when added to existing structures.
But this new models are not necessarily optimum.
The ability to disaggregate already existing models into their components and find solutions while working with all the individual components, instead of using the models themselves, opens the possibility to achieve more efficient structures.
One problem is that this is not the natural way for the human brain to work. It is necessary a deliberate effort to breakdown the components and consider them separately.
Other problem with this optimizing mechanism of the mind is that when a new piece of information does not “fit” into the current model, this new component is systematically rejected, as it does not seem to bring value or being consistent with the existing concept.
However, the new element may prove relevant in a later stage or under a different arrangement of the model.
Innovation is the result of creativity. And creativity is deeply rooted in the ability to take away the pieces of information that build up a concept and rearrange them in a totally different manner. Instead of adding to the particular arrangement of components that constitute an idea, we challenge those elements and rethink the whole concept again, normally with unexpected outcomes. Also, we don’t discard any element even if they do not seem to be useful. We need to keep those concepts “alive” much longer in the process.
Let’s consider music records. During the first 80 years in the industry of music recording, huge improvements took place. Going from rigid melamine to more flexible plastic, allowed records to multiply their life-span and protected the investment made by the collectors. Improving the primitive needles in phonographs, that became delicate diamond or sapphire needles was a major leap in achieving better sound quality. However, all these were improvements to the existing model. Better materials for the same elements. It required computer technology and challenging the basic elements of the concept to come to a real breakthrough. A Compact Disc is not the improvement of a vinyl record. It is the reinvention of the music recording media. It is rearranging the elements again, from scratch.
EFFECT IN ORGANIZATIONS
I believe that there is a basic problem with innovation being fostered in most organizations. Especially traditional business where creating knowledge is not the core business, like universities and research centers. Problem is that for-profit organizations need to manage risks and are, by nature, averse to support initiatives that do not have a clear, predictable and measurable outcome. That is how a business case is built. You invest in a project because you expect a specific return, in a specific timeframe, by implementing a specific thing in a specific way. But it seems like innovation comes from the unexpected outcomes. Innovation comes from investing in seemingly bad ideas for a while, in case they become the key element for a major innovation.
For some reason, creativity and innovation is in the short list of concepts that most people see as positive things. Organizations too. In my view, innovation is seen as the key to distinguish yourself and attain or keep leadership in a field or market. However, this approach needs to be adopted by organizations very carefully. I believe innovation is a powerful tool for growth, but it is very hard to encourage in a systematic way. Thus, I believe innovation is a priceless tool if you are a leader or a close follower of the leader. However, if like most companies in the world, you are not in a position of leadership in the industry, then innovation may be your key to the top, but the process to implement the appropriate mechanisms to foster innovation in an ongoing basis, imply costs and a complexity for which efficacy needs to be assessed and challenged continuously.
In many cases, efforts may be more effective when focused in what would seem to be more achievable goals. Very hard, though, like operational excellence.
In my view, companies should take innovation seriously, especially when they have achieved a mature operational model where operational excellence is the norm. Used prudently, it can also be the key for challengers in the market, open to accept additional risks that may actually transform into a competitive advantage.
I should mention that in my conversation with one of the executives, who preferred to participate without having their name being disclosed, this experienced IT leader shared with me that at some point companies need to make the decision regarding where they want to be positioned with respect to their competitors. Some will decide to be leaders in innovation. However, being the leader is extremely expensive and very risky. Thus, some companies may decide to be fast followers, and basically shadow the leader incorporating as fast as possible the innovations of the leader. Or in many cases, the decision is to be a slow follower, which minimizes the risks associated to innovation.