Updated: Jan 23
As companies pursue the holy grail of innovation, they are essentially contracting to become more creative. However, most corporate leaders have minimal experience building innovative cultures and managing creative employees. Most creative efforts, like advertising, promotions, etc., are usually outsourced to external agencies and consultants. Since corporations generally favor logic-driven behaviors, value predictability and are competent at developing and implementing process, it’s no wonder creativity often gets short shrift.
Yet, according to the 2010 IBM Global CEO Study, “creativity is the most important leadership quality” CEOs want in their workforce. This leads to a paradox: everyone wants creativity, but the uncertainty of creative ideas tends to scare many away. It seems the more innovative or disruptive an idea is, the more logic is used to create arguments that the idea is too risky.
Some propose that the way to resolve this contradiction is to train executives to become more creative. Send them off to creativity boot camp and have them draw pictures, perform improvisation or make stuff – all in the spirit of building their creative confidence and appreciation for right-brain thinking. It’s not a bad idea, although it doesn’t quite solve the real problem, which is that our analytical and logic-driven conduct is slowly beating the creativity out of our corporate cultures. In other words, there is an imbalance.
I like to describe the interaction of key innovation cultural dynamics as a firm’s Idea Climate. An Idea Climate is simply a metaphor to describe a company’s culture as it pertains to the creation and consideration of ideas. An Idea Climate can be represented by the following equation:
The equation suggests that to foster a creative culture, it is important to become conscious of four dynamic variables that are present within an organization:
Creativity: The fuel for innovation is ample creativity and ideas. An organization needs to promote fresh thinking and be cognizant of behaviors that quickly shut down creative engagement.
Logic: The nemesis of creativity is logic. Logic takes the form of analytical thinking, data examination and organizational processes – anything rationally based. Logic is important, but the key is to refrain from bombarding ideas with too much of it too early on in the process.
Belief: A firm’s vision, along with the executive team’s commitment to championing it across the enterprise, is a key driver of belief. Great vision statements also inform the innovation agenda, so those charged with developing future businesses understand what it is they are trying to build. Belief is an exponential variable in the equation because its presence tends to catalyze creativity and overall engagement.
Doubt: When individuals doubt an idea, they will use logic to build a case as to why the idea is not worthy. In addition, doubters tend to abuse the role of “Devil’s Advocate” by exaggerating worst-case scenarios that eventually create enough doubt to halt the idea. Doubt is an exponential variable as it commands great potential to diminish creativity and engagement.
Considering the paradox described earlier, the equation visualizes the mating dance between creativity and logic. Both competencies are required, of course. However, it’s when there is an imbalance that frustration mounts. Too much logic tends to kill creative ideas. Too much creativity without the constraints of logic leads to unstructured, chaotic environments.
So, how can we better balance the relationship between creativity and logic? Here are five principles to consider as you set out to build a creative culture. This is by no means an inclusive list, but a good place to start.
Recognize that there are times to be logical and times to be creative. Become conscious of what the situation calls for. If you find yourself being excessively logical, ask if it’s critical to be probing with analytical questions. Perhaps it’s OK to let the team incubate and build the idea further. Ideas are rarely born fully formed, so be careful not to crush them with excessively rational questions.
When you create belief you turn an employee’s job into a cause. Assess what you do to drive belief across your organization. Does your vision statement inspire and inform employees about what you want to become in the future? Champion your innovation vision and strategic objectives through frequent employee communication. When employees believe in what you want to accomplish, they will proactively develop ideas to make it a reality.
Demonstrate your commitment to creativity and innovation. The only way to do this is through engagement. This does not mean executives have to demonstrate their own creativity. Having an informal dialogue with employees and listening to their ideas is all it takes. The key, however, is to listen and not judge ideas with too much logic. When a leader entertains an absurd idea and does not quickly dismiss it, employees will take notice and realize it’s “safe” to share ideas.
Judge ideas against their strategic objectives. It’s easy to rely on seasoned judgment when evaluating an idea. The problem with this is that it’s subjective. It is better to judge an idea against a strategic objective. This way, if the idea is off-strategy you can provide helpful feedback to those presenting. This feedback not only delivers the news in a non-threatening way, it leaves the door open for idea shaping and refinement.
Excessive doubting leads to playing it safe. When you play it safe, you generally end up with incremental innovation. This opens the door for others to disrupt your category with a game-changing innovation. Try to catch when you are talking yourself out of an uncertain or perceived risky idea. Quite often, there is little risk in allowing a team to explore and experiment with a concept. You never know what you might discover!
Creating and maintaining a creative culture is a journey. Leaders must consciously champion innovative behaviors and act in such a way that employees feel safe to share ideas — even the absurd ones. It’s easy to say, “we want to be innovative.” It’s much harder to create a climate where innovation can take place and creativity is welcomed without harsh judgement. For those desiring a truly innovative culture, the key will be to build a climate where there is internal agility between creative and logical thinking. Those who turn this agility into a core competency will find themselves with a productive and efficient innovation culture.