Is the traditional business world at war with creativity?

No readers like this yet.
left and right brain

Earlier this week some colleagues and I attended a fantastic gathering of business and political leaders called the Emerging Issues Forum. The theme of the forum—interestingly enough for a bunch of business folks—was creativity, and speakers included some of my favorite thinkers/authors who analyze the future of business:

During their talks, I couldn’t help but notice all three touched on a similar thematic: the crucial role that inspiring creativity plays in driving innovation.

And all three raised questions about whether our “business-as-usual” (so to speak) business practices are creating the environment that will spur innovation needed to compete in the 21st century (some coverage here, here, and here) or whether they actually stifle creativity and innovation.

Other noted experts, including management guru Gary Hamel and legendary thinker Henry Mintzberg regularly raise similar questions (Mintzberg's essay "How Productivity Killed the American Enterprise", written before the economic collapse, puts him squarely in Nostradamus territory on the subject).

So today I ask you what may seem to be a simple question:

Is the traditional business world at war with creativity? Meaning:

  • Why do creative, original ideas face so many challenges seeing the light of day and then surviving in traditional organizations?
  • How can our organizations change so that rather than people who are good at “playing the game” always winning, the best ideas can win more often? Meritocracy in action and all that.
  • And finally, what could us open source-minded folks teach the traditional business world? How could we help more companies innovate the open source way?

Let's give peace a chance, man. How do we end the war and get the right and left brains in our businesses on a more innovative path?

I’d love to hear what you think.

User profile image.
Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


Chris, great question and I think the challenge for any organization is to balance all the resource constraints and tensions within its operations. Do you spend more time, money and people plowing the fields, harvesting or going to market? You really can't have one without the other in any company so that balance is very important and dynamic. Creative ideas and innovation are great when you can bring them to market, profit from them and re-seed the fields.

Separately from a leadership standpoint, I think its crucial to embody a belief that minimizes biases and blind spots that constrain an organization. Bring in leaders who don't think they know everything and want to in turn, bring in smarter people than themselves. Intrinsically by doing so, you're saying that there are better ideas out there than your own. And leaders who are fearless in their decisions. We both knew of one such leader and one of the reasons I joined Red Hat was the idea that leadership (and great ideas) can come from any level.

I don't believe the business world is "at war" with creativity, however the constraints of any organization and personalities of executives may make it appear so. The key is to have executives that understand when they need to plow, when they need to harvest and then have the gumption to stand by those decision and support leaders within their organization at any level...

My answer is no. War is a deliberate act of aggression toward a supposed end and is generally waged with some level of foresight and strategy.

When it comes to creativity in business, I'd venture to guess that 95% or greater are not deliberate or strategic or prescient--they're myopic and confused and waiting for someone else to lead the way. Not by design, but by default. Innocently doing what their predecessors have done and only going up to the edge--never jumping over it.

We all know and have worked for companies like this. Many of them.

War is not always "a deliberate act of aggression toward a supposed end..." If you study the history of Milton Friedman and crew, you will find that they have used chaos caused by natural disasters or social upheaval to impose their ideas about what capitalism should be on others.

Naomi Kline, in her book, "The Shock Doctrine - The Rise of Disaster Capitalism," illustrates one example very clearly, Hurricane Katrina and the demise of public schools in New Orleans. Prior to the hurricane, the school board ran 123 public schools, and as of the date of her book, 2007, only 4. Meanwhile charter, for profit schools went from 7 to 31. Along with this the teacher's union contract was demolished and its 4700 members fired. A few of the younger ones were rehired but at reduced salaries.

Deliberate acts? Yes, just read Milton Friedman and his followers. Aggressive? Socially, sure, but not militarily, so in one sense you are right, but too narrow in focus if you limit the definition of war to the use of bullets and bombs. Social aggression can be just as devastating as physical aggression. One of the best examples to point to is the long history of discrimination against Blacks, Chinese, and other minorities in the US.

Personally I don't believe that they "...are not deliberate or strategic or prescient--they're myopic and confused and waiting for someone else to lead the way. Not by design, but by default. Innocently doing what their predecessors have done...." Some perhaps, but not most, otherwise you wouldn't have a decline in Blacks, Latinos and women in Silicon Valley companies as reported in the San Jose Mercury News in a front page article on 2/14/2010.

An idea travels like a game of telephone, where one person starts and the idea is whispered into a higher level's ear, which is then whispered into a higher level's ear as far as that person understands it.

As this goes on and on, the chance of an idea being lost in translation increases.

While one may be able to "jump the ranks", or a person's reputation (meritocracy) may help push the idea up the chance of twisting still occurs.

Some people have open doors and open mind. Others don't.

Of course there are also politics going on, and "playing the game" has landed a number of people into comfortable positions. If it is what got them up there, chances are they are hesitant to usurp that method.

Chris, all great questions.

I agree with the earlier posts suggesting that there is no "war", per se -- or at least not from the point of view of there being a deliberate desire in most organizations to squelch new ideas or creativity. (To be fair, it doesn't feel that way if your idea is the one being quashed.) RonW's middle point is particularly good. To paraphrase a former U.S. president, "It's the people, stupid." Empower them within the construct of whatever the organization's mission is, and you'll see great results. Stifle that, and you'll get mediocrity.

Now if only it was as easy to do that in the "real world" as it is to suggest it here!

<em>Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -- Voltaire<em>

I, too, attended the Emerging Issues Forum, and it was a great event. As I listened to these talks, a new frame came into focus, which is that when a business talks about "increased efficiency" they usually mean "we found a new way to externalize costs". That's a war on reality because in the real world shifting a cost does not eliminate it, it just means somebody else is going to bear it. And it is fundamentally irresponsible to make it ones business to sneak cost onto the balance sheet of customers, partners, and especially non-customers.

There are rare times, as with many open source projects, where effort is not treated like cost, but like investment or education (which is an investment of the mind). When efforts actually build stores rather than depleting them, fundamental economics improve and we are able to move beyond the zero-sum game. Alas, by attending to a selective subset of reality, paying mostly attention to the measurable analytic without proper regard for the vital creative, companies convince themselves of absurdities all the time. What happens then?

There is, however, "no such thing as the real world," as John Mayer sang; there is practically no reason even to have to denounce this moldy, tottering delusion. If there were truly a war being conducted against "reality," its prosecutors should be praised and honoured. Of course, nothing of the kind is "really" taking place.

Fantastic comments so far, wow! Thanks everyone... Think I might recruit some of you to write followup articles on this subject. In the meantime, keep the ideas coming, folks!

It's not at war it's just that creativity has been put in the trunk after analytical thinking.

As you know new ideas get drowned because of the fear of: lost productivity, if it works don't fix it, my idea is better, prove it, what's the roi, etc.

I think what we can do to stop the bleeding is:

- Accept that tomorrow is going to be different than today and that those rules you play by are already irrelevant.
- Accept that your business is a commodity and you're already in hot water.
- Accept that the if your business disappeared tomorrow nobody would care.

What to do:
- Challenge assumptions (your own and the industry)
- Come to a shared understanding on what innovation means to you, your customers and the world and build from there.
- Commit to innovation as you commit to protecting your children.
- Do the vision thing but this time a shared vision.
- Make it safe to fail and let a thousand flowers bloom...experiment to get to the future first.

Innovation isn't the goal, relevance is and the only to get there is to keep churning the soil and not let conformity set in.

These are just some thoughts of the top of my head as I've been thinking about the same thing lately.

I don’t think that there’s been a war on innovation – more a war on risk which usually manifests itself in the form of a war on change. To be sure there are still innovators (even revolutionaries) within our organizations. I see them everyday.

But think about how many organizations we’ve seen where the budget, the forecast and the roadmap are objects or worship and reverence. Earlier in my career at a previous company, I actually saw the budget personified i.e. “That’s a good idea, but the budget says no”.

Innovation requires risk. Risk requires a willingness to step out of our comfort zones with all the curiosity of a toddler at the library. There’s a lethargy that comes with success. It’s painful to acknowledge that regardless of how great your product is there is somebody in garage somewhere looking to “steal your eggs”.

I think open source ‘minded’ folks through evangelism of idea meritocracy and community “brain pooling” are having an impact on business. But it takes time. And we need to continue to push the open source model into all aspects of our organizations from product development and distribution to finance, HR, etc. – It’s critical to get all the brains into the mix.

To your question about “How our organizations can change” I’m remembering the Jack Welch approach to supporting innovation. Incentives drive behavior. If you want innovators to step up to the plate and take big swings – remove the risk of failure from the equation. A ‘swing and miss’ should be rewarded – then dissected and learned from. A ‘swing and a hit’ should be generously rewarded. Rewards are not always financial – people are motivated in varied, often strange ways.

Great follow-up comments from y'all! Somebody earlier commented that it's all about the people and that pretty much sums it all up for me. Typically with smaller companies you can have a meritocracy, a flat organization where leaders have their ears close to the ground, ready to promote the best ideas and people. They haven't seen a lot of success yet so their risk profiles are fairly tolerant of change.

Fast-forward to an organization that is larger and has seen success. There's a tendency to continue doing what you've been doing because "it worked!" You start hiring managers and executives that are good at tweaking the formula, and bring in a long history of larger corporation expertise. Folks who can take the organization to the next level, i.e. take the product to market efficiently. And yet, instinctively I think this transformation slowly starts to squash out independent thinking and innovation. Because people who achieve success in larger corporation are not only bright, motivated and intelligent, but have learned how to politic effectively for their goals.

And that's where I think the creativity and meritocracy model breaks down. People start playing the politics game, you have to go through appropriate channels to pitch your ideas and great ideas, often get diluted or squashed if they don't get championed by the right people. There was a recent article in the NY Times about Microsoft's (sorry guys, but it's a great example) challenge with innovation written by an ex-VP, Dick Brass (don't laugh!).

Really powerful insight and to me, a sad example of what happens when you hire leaders that want to squabble over the size of their slice of pie instead of trying to grow the entire pie. Hire the smartest people who are open-minded, willing to hire and promote the best people around them, and put the organization's goals ahead of their own personal goals. And then, hopefully, you can avoid the same stagnation that befalls many companies. Easier said than done, right?

RonW, interesting that you brought up the Brass article. It's not hard to see strong parallels in a lot of other big organizations (certain big car companies, maybe?) in many fields.

An interesting takes on that is in the presentation deck from Netflix about their corporate culture ( They discuss the natural tendency to curtail individual behavior as a way to avoid risk, outline why organizations develop process as they grow more complex, but then discuss the pitfalls of that approach, in terms of lost flexibility and driving out talent. (They also have a really interesting approach to retaining and letting talent go, but that could be a topic in itself.)

Chris, first thanks for writing two very interesting articles ; Is the Traditional Business World at war with creativity? and Three signs your business may not be ready for the Open Source way? Both of these articles and several of the follow up comments ask questions around the topic of how can organizations truly embrace creativity. I believe that your articles have done a fine job outlining some of the problems encountered in this endeavor. Both your articles and several of the comments mention corporate culture directly or indirectly and indicate the critical role it plays in establishing a truly creative organization. However, I believe that the discussion would be even more useful if it could be expanded to outline the steps necessary to change the culture to accommodate creativity.

While I’m certainly no expert I’d like to offer a few comments. My definition of corporate culture is a set of collective behaviors which are positively reinforced, both directly and indirectly, by the members of the organization. These behaviors are established over time and are often viewed as the reason for the organization’s success. However, in many cases, the environment the organization currently finds itself in may have changed radically. In order for the culture of the organization to change, the behaviors which are reinforced must change. If the organization wants to encourage creativity the new behaviors must support creativity. In addition, since creativity is usually risky, the new behaviors must tolerate additional risk and deal with failure in a positive manner.

I recognize that changing culture is a difficult challenge but all organizations find themselves in a rapidly evolving world where business products and practices must continually evolve for the organization to survive. Since that’s the case, the creativity of its people is the most important resource available to meet this challenge. The Open Source framework offers a new model for creative collaboration which can serve to focus the creativity on solutions critical to the organizations survival and success. However, for it to be implemented across a wide range of industries I believe that the issue of managing culture change must be addressed. The behaviors which support creativity must be identified and those behaviors positively reinforced across all of the organization to create an enterprise which truly embraces creativity.

Again, many thanks for the articles and the comments. I look forward to reading more in the future.

Mathew Smith

John Taylor Gatto talks about this in his books, "A Different Kind of Teacher," and "The Underground History of American Education."

Making mistakes is embraced at the highest level. Look at the CEOs and VPs of big corporations. They get huge bonuses when their companies fail.

I wish we could embrace the failures of fundraisers the same way.

I'm still young, just starting out in the business world as an engineer, so my comments perhaps aren't as valuable to this conversation, but I'll offer my thoughts anyway.

I scanned through the news coverage linked in this article, and at this Emerging Issues Forum, analytical thinking was in conflict with creative thinking, and it seems that analytical thinking currently has creative thinking in a head-lock, where it should be the other way around.

I get the sense that my understanding of the notion of analytical thinking is very different from what the Emerging Issues people are talking about. To me, analytical thinking isn't what a computer program does, it is what humans do. When repetitive task is discovered, human programmers automate it in software, and let the other humans get on with the real analytical thinking which necessarily requires creativity.

While many engineering problems are well defined and have solution templates ready to solve them, many other engineering problems don't have an optimal answer, and the optimal answer often depends on highly subjective, or otherwise difficult-to-measure, criteria that depends on what the customers want. You can isolate the variables, but for which parameters should you optimize? There is not always a clear answer, and the decision ultimately requires creative thinking, and a subjective understanding of the problem. In that sense, I see no difference between creative and analytical thinking.

Aside from that semantic disagreement, I generally agree with what the Emerging Issues people are saying. I feel like it is nearly impossible to bring up my ideas for solving business problems, and I am a bit frustrated with the repetitive work that I have to do; so often I am doing work that a computer program could do better, but no one can change it or even experiment with new ideas because the software is strictly controlled closed source. I would like to see this changed, and I like the idea of using, as they said it, the "whole human" at work while letting computers do the repetitive stuff.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.