A case history of a company that set out to encourage creativity and an analysis of why it didn’t succeed.

I expect that a lot of readers are like me and keep an “ieas” folder, full of random thoughts waiting for their moment to arrive. I decided to revisit mine this evening. The subject of ceativity vs. innovation has come up recently and it set me reflecting on some old notes from a previous company. Specifically, why didn’t it work when this company tried to embrace creativity? It’s difficult to understand because they did a lot of the right ingredients to make it successful:

  • They had a long history of invention, innovation and problem solving.
  • Job descriptions required 10 percent of time to be spent on speculative work.
  • They organised a two-day off-site brain-storming session for the entire technical department
  • They set up a colourful creative room with toys and flip-charts
  • They held a new-product competition

Less than three years later, what was the result? None of the interesting ideas had come to fruition and the most creative employees had left or been fired. So what went wrong?

A number of the team did not regard themselves as creative. They thought the compulsory brainstorming event was a waste of time and at least one refused to go. The most creative members welcomed the chance to demonstrate their skills, but it was unpopular with nearly everybody else.

New ideas are fragile, not fully developed and vulnerable to the judgement-gun. A number of the department were always quick to criticize. It’s probably not a coincidence that they viewed any interest in their own projects as hostile and missed any chance of assistance. I personally have no time for these operators. In meetings I insist that they have something good to say first or a better idea of their own.

The long-term killer, however, was a poisonous mockery. The creative suite became generally known as the “play room” and fell into disuse. The new-product competition produced a radical idea for a profitable maintenance service – they could even have given their products away. The author eventually tired of the jokes and the lack of cooperation from the marketing department.

What could have been done differently? here were several changes that the company could have made:

  • Teams worked together for years and became stale. Shuffling them, even at random, would have broken down barriers.
  • Speculative work was not encouraged. This would, however, have made ideas generation a normal activity, not a special event.
  • Failing projects were not culled but continued to consume resources and reduce morale.
  • Critics were tolerated.

So what characteristics does the leader need to make others creative?

  • Open-minded, receptive to ideas and keen to learn
  • Empowering – giving self-control and freedom
  • Supportive, encouraging and building self-confidence
  • Energetic and enthusiastic
  • Provocative, challenging, questioning
  • Enough self-confidence to say “I don’t know”
  • Managing the boundaries so that people can get on with their jobs

How would your people rate you?