#581  Innovative Leader     Volume 12, Number 7        July 2003

Ten Great Ways to Crush Creativity
by Paul Sloane

Mr. Sloane speaks and trains on lateral leadership (www.destination-innovation.com).  He is author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills (Kogan Page, London, England, 2003).  

As the economic situation continues to squeeze, it is tempting to batten down the hatches, cut costs, wait for the calm and pray that you’ll emerge on the other side of the downturn with your company still intact.  A more effective and more productive reaction is to start looking to the future and to use innovation to improve your products and processes.  Many CEOs recognize the value of staff creativity to generate ideas for new business opportunities, but they fail to put in place training or processes to make this happen.  Worse still, they are unaware that they stifle their peoples’ creative potential.  Here are some of the most common ways to crush imagination in your organization.

Mistake One:  Criticism

A natural reaction to any new idea you hear is to criticize it, to point out some of the weaknesses and flaws which will hold it back.  The more experienced you are, the easier it is to find fault with other people’s ideas.   Decca Records turned down the Beatles, IBM rejected the photocopying idea that launched Xerox, DEC turned down the spreadsheet, and various major publishers turned down the first Harry Potter novel.  The same thing is happening in most organizations today.  New ideas tend to be partly-formed so it is easy to reject them as “bad.”  They diverge from the narrow focus that we have for the business so we discard them.  But there is no such thing as a “bad” idea.  Bad ideas are often excellent springboards for good ideas.  Every organization needs lots of bad, silly, stupid, crazy ideas because within them there are concepts we can adapt to make into workable innovations.

What is more, every time somebody comes to you with an idea that you criticize, it discourages the person from making any more suggestions.  It sends a message that new ideas are not welcome and that anyone who volunteers them is risking criticism or ridicule.

Mistake Two:  Banning Brainstorms

Brainstorming is seen by some as old-fashioned and passé, but good brainstorms remain one of the best ways of generating plenty of fresh ideas and involving staff from all levels.  If your organization is not holding frequent brainstorm sessions to find creative solutions then you are missing a great opportunity for new ideas.   Your brainstorming sessions should be short and have a high energy level.  They should have a clear focus and generate a large number of ideas.  They should be chaired by an enthusiastic facilitator who encourages the flow of ideas and ensures that there is no initial criticism or judgment.

Mistake Three:  Problem Hoarding

There is a macho concept that the VPs should shoulder the responsibility for solving all the company’s major problems.  Strategic issues are too complicated and high-level for the ordinary staff.  But people lower down the organization are often closer to the processes or the customer, and they can see what is working and what isn’t.  They have a pretty shrewd notion of what is going on.  If you involve them and throw down a challenge to help find solutions, then you will find a rich source of new ideas and a shared sense of purpose.  You will get better decisions and the staff are much more likely to buy into initiatives that they have helped form than to accept things handed down.

Mistake Four:  Efficiency Over Innovation

It is natural for managers to focus on making the current business model work better.  Every process can be improved.  But if we focus entirely on making things better then we can miss the chance to make things different and that is the essence of innovation.  Ultimately innovation beats efficiency.  If you were making slide rules then improving efficiency would not have stopped electronic calculators from wiping you out.  If you were sending messages using fax then you needed to learn email rather than send more faxes.  If you made LP records then making them better and faster was no protection from CDs.  You have to improve the current process while continually looking for and trying out new methods of delivering value to customers.  An exclusive focus on efficiency is a dangerous blinker.

Mistake Five:  Overworking

Often allied to the focus on efficiency is a culture of long hours and hard work.  The problem here is the belief that hard work alone will solve the problem.  Often we need to find a different way of solving a problem rather than just working harder at the old way of doing things.  We need to take time to look for new opportunities.  But as the creativity expert, Edward de Bono, says, “You cannot look in a new direction by looking harder in the same direction.”  If you are focused on one way of doing things and working all hours to make it happen then how can you find time to try new ways of reaching your goals?  If you had been making gas lamps and you worked all day to produce more lamps then you would have had no time to learn about electricity and develop an electric light.  Our working day needs time for learning, fun, lateral thinking, wild ideas and testing of new initiatives.

Mistake Six:  “It Isn’t in the Plan”

“We cannot try that idea because it is not in the plan and we have no budget for it.”  Organizations that plan in great detail and then adhere to those plans are placing themselves in a straitjacket.  They are limiting themselves to a vision of the world as the planners saw it when they conceived the plan.  Markets and needs change so quickly that the view we had last week can be out of date today.  So how accurate can the plan we did last December be?  Corporate plans should be loose frameworks to be used as guidelines rather than detailed route maps.   They must allow for sudden changes in market conditions, new threats and opportunities, and for experimentation.  The plan should not become a bunker within which unimaginative managers can hide.

Mistake Seven:  Laying the Blame

A culture of blame for failure is a sure-fire way to halt entrepreneurial spirit in its tracks.  Most innovation projects will fail, but they are still worthwhile because it is only by trying them that you can determine which promising ideas are duds and which are winners.  Edison had thousands of failures in his experiments that resulted in the invention of the electric light.  When asked how he could endure so many failures he replied “They were not failures, each one taught me a new way which did not work.”

Mistake Eight:  Wrong Rewards

If your bonuses are structured to reward well-established products and businesses then chances are they are completely wrong for starting new business lines.  Typical bonuses give percentages of quarterly revenues and contribution as rewards for success.  But for its first few quarters, a new product or service may yield little revenue and negative contribution.  You need different incentives for the team running an innovation project.  They should be rewarded for reaching agreed milestones.  They should be treated as entrepreneurs and given stock options, or other rewards, linked to the longer-term success of their project.

Mistake Nine:  Giving Innovation Projects to Production Units

A common mistake in larger companies is to give innovation projects to existing line managers who are running the regular business as well.  It can seem a natural thing to do but it is generally fatal.  New products or services are like delicate seedlings that should be kept in the greenhouse until they are stronger and not left to fend for themselves.  The regular business manager is too busy meeting his monthly deadlines and targets to give the prototype business the attention it needs. It is better to put the seedlings in the care of a special department – sometimes known as an innovation incubator.  This department has different goals and objectives, it works to a longer schedule, it is headed by an innovation director who has clout in the organization, it aims to have maybe one in three innovations be really successful and to learn from those that do not succeed. 

Mistake Ten:  No Training

Can creativity be taught, or is it a rare talent possessed by a handful of gifted individuals?  The answer is that every one of us can be creative if we are encouraged and shown how to do it.   We were all imaginative as children but gradually most people have their creative instincts ground down by the routine of work.  With proper training people can develop skills in questioning, brainstorming, adapting, combining, analyzing and selecting ideas.  They can rediscover their imaginations.  They can be the innovative engine your organization needs.

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