Creativity: Companies may need it and strive for it but they hate it!

Published in UT San Diego, July 15, 2013

One of the most overused words in the English language is “creativity.” We honor it, we applaud it, we revere it, we seek it — but in truth, we want to have nothing to do with it.

Steve Jobs is viewed as an enormously successful entrepreneur whose creativity in envisioning new products like the iPhone and iPad led to the success of Apple. His story is well known. He was fired from the company he founded and then rehired several years later.

This ambivalence toward creativity is the topic of research by Jennifer Mueller, associate professor of management at the University of San Diego’s School of Business Administration. While we say that we value creativity, at the same time, we often reject original ideas, and we view creative people as not suitable for promotion, according to her research.

Creativity — the ability to generate novel and useful solutions — is a critical component of success. Effectively managing the creative process within organizations is an important part of economic development and in stimulating disruptive innovation — an innovation that creates a new market and puts the “old” players out of business. For example, think cars vs. horse and buggies, mobile phones vs. landlines, Wikipedia vs. printed encyclopedias.

Often creativity springs from a time when great danger lurks (like running out of money) and a creative solution is forced upon the company. Yet, the company needs to survive long enough to create a new paradigm, new product or new service that can be monetized.

One troubling finding is a perception clash — people who express creative solutions may be viewed as having lower levels of leadership potential, according to a research paper that was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and written by Mueller with Jack A. Goncalo and Dishan Kamdar. This is because creative solutions are often uncertain since they are novel, and this makes people uncomfortable.

It is the rare person who is both wildly creative and a great leader — and if you then ask for innovation on top of that — game over.

“Creative people are perceived as quirky and unfocused — qualities we don’t want in a leader,” Mueller said. “We love and enjoy quirky people, but we’re also afraid of them. We’re afraid of giving them power over us because they could do the unexpected and you don’t know where they will go next.”

In the startup racket, it is often the wild-eyed founder who is also the visionary leader at least for a period of time. And then, as we have seen over and over, the founder gets replaced by a more seasoned and “predictable” leader who must support continued creativity in the company.

Creative thinking is not antithetical to leadership. They just exist on a continuum. Light and dark.

Successful entrepreneurs handle uncertainty well. However, uncertainty makes most of us uncomfortable and thus unable to recognize the truly creative solution, perhaps when we need it the most, according to Mueller. So when your company is in extremis, the winning solution may not be as apparent, because to see it, you need to accept the uncertainty of the situation and be willing to risk much if not all.

Of course, if you survive the crisis with an “aha” moment, the good news is that the next aha is not far behind. It is a virtuous cycle — the more creativity that is implemented and celebrated, then the more likely it is you will generate more novel concepts.

“I’m not so sure that creative ideas are rare. What’s rare is the person who can detect what is both novel and useful,” Mueller said. “In a large organization, the manager who controls the purse strings is often separate from the engineer who develops the novel idea. In a smaller company, it’s often the founder who comes up with the ideas and also controls the purse strings. That is one reason why it’s easier to implement novel ideas in a small company.”

Rule No. 262: What good is a light bulb if you don’t have electricity?

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