Most people rely on proven theories and models to make sense of the world and to help them predict outcomes. But when leaders refuse to consider embedding creativity into their cultures, they can paralyse or even kill their organisation.
Richard Hytner, Adjunct Professor of Marketing at London Business School, believes the biggest barrier to creativity in business is the myth that being creative is somehow someone else’s job.
“It’s all too easy for the CEO to assign creativity to the marketing department and fail to challenge the CFO’s mischievous assertion that, ‘Marketing does all the ‘fluffy stuff’,” he says. “As soon as creativity is deemed to belong to a singular discipline, the preserve of the creative crazies, every other discipline is exempt from the pursuit of new thinking.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines creativity as, ‘The use of imagination or original ideas to create something’. In other words, anyone can do it. Creativity is not just for bohemians, entrepreneurs, the under-35s or ad agencies with beanbags for chairs.
“Most companies delegate creativity,” Hytner says. “Even in the creative industries, where you would legitimately conclude ideas are the preserve of everyone, there are creative departments. As soon as you badge a department with that moniker, by definition every other department isn’t creative. This is a heinous crime because we’re all capable of being creative if equipped with the right skills and supported in an environment that fosters creativity.”
Business leaders claim that innovation is vital to their future survival. Many organisations now have dedicated innovation teams and processes. As Hytner says, assigning experimental thinking to just one team isn’t a smart way to access diverse thinking across the entire business:
“Traditionally, when people think about innovation they worry about the uncertainty of outcomes, the inability to guarantee a sure-fire hit and the resources it will soak up. But, if you don’t innovate, you won’t attract the talent you need to sustain your enterprise, and you won’t convince your customers that you are match-fit,” Hytner says.
“The talent will gravitate to places where they can explore their ideas and the customers will choose to engage with businesses they trust. The ability to innovate is a strong driver of people’s confidence in a business. If you fail to adopt new ways of thinking, you’ll get disrupted out of existence or so commoditised that you’ll find new growth impossible to identify. Either way, you’ll be stuck in time – a once great company doing things the way it always did.”
Leaders are conditioned to spot danger, mitigate risk and create certainty in a world that is increasingly unpredictable, all of which is incredibly important. But if they want their organisation to stay competitive, they need to strike a balance between preventing potential pitfalls and promoting a positive, experimental outlook.
They also need to realise that the invitation to be creative can’t suddenly be issued or enthusiastically taken up by everyone. For some, it just doesn’t come naturally; people with creative confidence have been nurtured over time through encouragement, opportunities, coaching and good leadership. “To be creative,” Hytner says, “is to welcome obstacles, and to chase challenges and problems that need solving. It needs to feature on the daily diet of everybody in the organisation, including the leaders.”
Hytner says that creativity transcends hierarchy, with those most able to think differently and to see opportunities afresh often on the front line rather than in the boardroom. The challenge for some leaders is to admit they don’t have all the answers and accept that creativity is a collaborative endeavour. “Leaders must have an appetite to make new random connections and forge unexpected partnerships in response to challenges. To innovate demands a positive tone and an open hand,” he says.
Are leaders humble enough to admit that someone with little business experience can provide a creative solution to an ongoing challenge? “It takes courage to admit that the answers might not be with the board or the functional leadership team,” Hytner says. “They must welcome and implement ideas, irrespective of where they come from. Having no humility means you have no real creativity.”
However, most organisations risk killing rather than nurturing creative minds. “You may imagine young emerging talent, through sheer exuberance and naivety, inspiring a company’s creativity, but in many industries, the opposite is more common,” Hytner says. “Companies suck the life out of them, appearing to value conformity more than creativity. Organisations have to unblock all inhibitors to creativity – and that takes confidence.”
Hytner adds that businesses often stifle creativity with their tried and tested ways of doing things. “There is a comfort in business as usual. Bosses say, ‘We have to choose between innovating for the future and doing the everyday things well, the things that mean we can afford to turn the lights on and off every day.’ The challenge for leaders is to balance the imperatives of the ‘now’ business with the ‘new’ business. You can innovate in both and the most creative leaders do.”
Smaller organisations face fewer obstacles when it comes to innovation. They don’t have to deal with demanding shareholders or the heavy burden of compliance, which, in theory, gives them the freedom to be more creative. Or does it?
“The most creative ideas are borne of constraint, from some sort of straightjacket,” Hytner says. “For inspiration on how to use constraint to your competitive advantage, read Adam Morgan’s book, The Beautiful Constraint. Creating a new proposition in a heavily regulated market leads to tension. Without tension, you’re unlikely to have the impetus to think afresh. Barriers are the creative mind’s greatest asset. Not having enough money or time can be surprisingly helpful.”
For Hytner, traditional creative hubs such as London and New York risk losing out to more forward-thinking, innovative locations. The US is commonly known as the epicentre of digitalisation, but parts of The Baltics and Nordics would give it a real run for its money.
Have organisations with the biggest budgets and most global of reputations lost their appetite for experimentation? Hytner’s experience at the helm of creative hothouse Saatchi and Saatchi suggests there is some truth to that idea.
“Consistently we found that the highest standards of creativity came from collaborating with clients in regions like South America, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Eastern Europe. Is there something deep within these cultures that makes people more open to new thinking or more ready to take calculated risks? Are they less fearful? Have they used the norm of volatility in some of these countries as a spur to become more innovative?
Today, most organisations publicly champion creativity and its commercial application, innovation – but few actually embrace them as leadership imperatives. Creative talk is cheap. Changing an entrenched, systemised way of working that quashes innovation is much more challenging. “A lot of companies can’t help themselves,” Hytner says. “They stifle creativity and there are blocks at every twist and turn of company life. So what’s the way forward?
“If you’re personally convinced that ‘business as usual’ may delight shareholders today but likely lead to more than disappointment tomorrow, a new, wholehearted commitment to creativity across the business demands that leaders identify the blockers and take personal accountability for leading a creative environment. Leaders are paid more than others because the role takes courage – no more so than when it comes to creativity and innovation.”
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