#301 from Innovative
Leader Volume 6, Number 10
Creativity: It’s Not What You Expect
Robinson is professor at the School of Management, University of
Massachusetts at Amherst. Dr. Stern teaches at the School of
Education, Oregon State University, Corvallis.
They wrote Corporate Creativity: How Innovation and Improvement Actually Happen,
(Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1997) from which this article is
adapted with permission.
executives in most companies are aware that their creative potential
greatly exceeds their creative performance.
The problem is that they don’t know what to do about it. Most
creative acts, as they now occur in companies, are not planned
for, and come from where they’re least expected. It’s
impossible to predict what
they’ll be, who will
be involved in them, and when
and how they’ll
happen. This is the true nature of corporate creativity, and
it’s here that a company’s creative potential really lies. For
corporate creativity, the real power is in the unexpected.
A good example of
the power of the unexpected occurred at Japan Railways (JR) East.
This company never anticipated that constructing a new
bullet-train line through the mountains north of Tokyo would lead
it to a new and very profitable business -- in beverages. The new
train line required many tunnels. The one through Mt. Tanigawa had
water problems, and JR engineers began to draw up drainage plans.
But inside the tunnel, a maintenance worker thought the water
tasted so good that he proposed that instead of pumping it away
into runoffs, JR East should bottle and market it as premium
mineral water. His idea was implemented, and soon the water
appeared on the market under the brand name of “Oshimizu”. It
became so popular that JR East installed Oshimizu vending machines
on every one of its nearly 1,000 platforms. Advertisements for the
water emphasize the purity of Mt. Tanigawa’s snow pack, the
source of the water, and the slow process by which it percolates
through the mountain, picking up healthful amounts of minerals.
The product line has grown to include juices as well as iced and
hot teas and coffees. In 1994, sales of Oshimizu beverages were
creative acts like this do happen in companies, but the vast
majority of them are far less dramatic. An American Airlines
flight attendant sent a suggestion form, with an attached plastic
lid, to headquarters. This lid, she explained, was a cover for the
metal coffee pots to keep the coffee warm and prevent it from
spilling. Standard procedure called for the catering division to
provision each aircraft with ten of these lids. However, the
flight attendant noticed that, at the end of each flight, at least
half of the lids were thrown away unused. She proposed that only
five should be put on each flight. The airline studied her
proposal, as it examines every written suggestion. At first, the
potential savings seemed negligible—each lid costs only 1.5
cents—hardly worth bothering about. They then realized that
saving five lids would mean 7.5 cents per flight, and with more
than 2,300 flights per day on each of 365 days in the year, her
idea about penny-and-a-half coffee-pot lids was worth more than
$62,000 in annual savings.
Both of these
ideas were initiated by individuals and were entirely
unanticipated by their management. Through our investigations of
creative acts in companies around the world, we have come to
realize that the majority of creative acts, whether dramatic
innovations or tiny improvements, occur in this way. They’re not
only unplanned, but completely unexpected.
Before we met,
each of us had already arrived at this realization.
For Stern, it came during a two-year study of projects that
had received national awards from the government’s Science and
Technology Agency and the Japan Institute of Invention and
Innovation from 1986 to 1990.
It turned out that more than half of these projects had
been initiated by individuals, and hadn’t been anticipated by
anyone else at their companies. Furthermore, the novelty and
impact of these self-initiated projects far exceeded that of the
projects that had been initiated by management.
He also compared approximately 200 award-winning projects with
projects that were commercially successful, but not especially
creative. A similar pattern emerged -- the award-winning projects
were more likely to have been initiated by individuals,
while the not-especially-novel ones were far more likely to have
been planned for by management.
About the same
time, Robinson was noticing a similar phenomenon in the area of
continuous improvement. Almost all the companies I looked at used
a planned approach to continuous improvement, an approach in which
what to improve, by
how much, and by whom was decided in advance. Sometimes even a particular
problem-solving method was prescribed and followed. Yet the top
performers invariably placed greater emphasis on systems designed
to stimulate improvements that had not been planned for. Here,
too, the more novel and far-reaching improvements tended to be the
We wondered why
these unexpected origins were so difficult to unearth. Most
companies don’t seem to realize the importance of unanticipated
creative acts. Perhaps
a natural tendency of management is to believe it’s more in
control of events than it really is, particularly when those
events lead to successful improvements or innovations. Over time,
corporate word-of-mouth, and even official company histories,
obscure the unexpected origins of creative acts, substituting
simplistic and misleading accounts of what really happened.
no shortage of advice on how to promote creativity in companies,
but much of it seems to assume that people will suspend their
critical faculties. It’s hard to imagine how chicken yells, or
rearranging the furniture and expanding the cafeteria menu to
include Thai food and tofu (as one recent book suggests) could
have helped the JR East maintenance worker or the American
Airlines flight attendant come up with their ideas. The truth is
that recommendations such as these have little, if any, connection
to actual creative acts. In the course of our investigations, we
were careful to connect creative acts with the actions that really
contributed to them.
Six Essential Elements of Corporate Creativity
unexpected creative act that we studied, six elements played a
role, and we believe that these elements are key to promoting
consistent corporate creativity. Although no one can predict the specific
creative acts that will follow, the likelihood of their happening
will significantly increase when these six elements are in place.
“Managing” creativity is about raising probabilities and, in
this way, is similar to operating a casino. Even though casinos
don’t know how individual gamblers will fare at any given table,
they do know that if enough customers come and play for long
enough against the house odds, the casino will make a very
predictable and stable profit. Short-term, it’s a matter of
probability, but in the long-term profits are a matter of
certainty. In much the same way, while companies cannot know where
specific creative acts will come from or what they will be, they
can act to increase the frequency with which these events occur.
that the interests and actions of all employees are directed
toward a company’s key goals, so that any
employee will recognize and respond positively to a
potentially useful idea. Companies can function
with relatively poor alignment, but they cannot be
consistently creative unless they are strongly aligned. Alignment
is often overlooked—it’s intangible and elusive, and as far as
corporate creativity is concerned, its effects are readily visible
only when a company is either extraordinarily well aligned or
misaligned. For example, alignment for cost-savings at American
Airlines is so strong that the flight attendant with the coffee
lid idea never had any doubt that her company would welcome and
reward her proposal if it saved money.
worker and the flight attendant thought their ideas might be
possible, took hold of them and made them work. One reason why
self-initiated activity figures so prominently in corporate
creativity is that it allows employees to pick a problem they’re
interested in and feel able to solve, for whatever
reason. This means their intrinsic motivation is much higher
than would be the case if the project had been planned or picked
for them by someone else. It’s surprisingly straightforward to
promote the kind of self-initiated activity that leads to creative
activity occurs in the absence of direct official support, and
with the intent of doing something new and useful. When an idea is
new to a company, it’s often resisted and opposed. Unofficial
activity gives ideas a safe haven where they have the chance to
develop until they’re strong enough to overcome resistance.
Furthermore, official status for a project raises all kinds of
barriers to creativity, which every
planned project encounters throughout its life. Unofficially,
employees are free to experiment, even far outside their job
descriptions (as did the maintenance worker), and it’s often
during this time that they make the unexpected connections. In
almost every instance we examined, the essence of the creative act
was arrived at during the unofficial period.
discovery is one made by fortunate
accident in the presence of sagacity
(keenness of insight). Creativity often involves making
connections between things that may seem unconnected. The more
abstruse the connection, the greater the intellectual distance
that must be traversed to make it, and the greater the role for
the unexpected. Whether those involved recognize it or not,
serendipity is present in every creative act. Only when
serendipity is truly understood can companies take action to
A stimulus either
provides fresh insight into something a person has already set out
to do, or it bumps that person into something entirely new.
However, it’s impossible to predict how an individual will react
to a particular stimulus, and what provokes one person may not
even be noticed by another. While organizations should do all they
can bring diverse stimuli to their employees, they should also
recognize that such efforts have limited impact.
Most stimuli arise in connection with daily life or with
the work itself. It’s far more important that an organization
provide opportunities for its employees to tell others about the
stimuli they’ve received and the possibilities these suggest to
them. It’s here that the real leverage lies.
organization carries out activities that are planned, and should
establish the necessary lines of communication to support these.
But for corporate creativity, these official channels are of
limited usefulness. Within-company communication is one of the
things that seems to happen naturally at smaller companies, but
not so naturally at larger ones. The larger the company, the more likely that the
components of creative acts are already present somewhere in it,
but the less likely
they will be brought together without some help. Such
communication is difficult enough between employees who work at
the same location. What about communication between people who
work in different divisions and might never, in the normal course
of events, meet each other? We believe that a company’s creative
potential increases rapidly with its size, but that without
systems in place to promote unanticipated exchanges of
information, this potential will never be realized. Worse, the
assumption will continue to be made that creativity can only
really happen in small companies.
company we studied, we met people who felt that their
organization’s potential for creativity was far greater than its
present performance would indicate. They are right. We believe
this situation won’t change until the true nature of creativity
becomes generally recognized. The bulk of a company’s potential
creativity is virtually unreachable with the usual “plan and
control” style of management, because it lies in those creative
acts that cannot be specifically asked for and that no amount of
planning can directly cause. The key to corporate creativity lies
in these unanticipated creative acts, and our six elements offer a
way to realize the tremendous potential they represent.