Creativity is risky (and other truths open leaders need to hear)

Creativity is critical for innovative workplaces. But what is it—and how does it really work?
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Leaders are all too aware of the importance of invention and innovation. Today, the health and wealth of their businesses have become increasingly dependent on the creation of new products and processes. In the digital age especially, competition is more fierce than ever as global markets open and expand. Just keeping pace with change requires a focus on constant improvement and consistent learning. And that says nothing about building for tomorrow.

Organizational leaders know that fostering creativity and innovation is important, but they don't often take time to understand how specific workplace contexts—concrete processes and elements—fit together to make creativity and innovation possible. This article offers a birds-eye view (and, let's face it, a short treatise) on the nature of creativity and explains how it functions in an open organization.

What creativity is—and isn't

Researchers often define creativity as a product or a process that is novel and useful. This definition is a broad one that winds up leaving a lot of room for interpretation: What is new, and to whom? What is useful, and to whom? Creativity can involve the production of something never built (an idea) or something instantiated or materialized (a technical or artistic innovation). In fact, the word "innovation" is a business term used to indicate an instantiation of creativity (not just an idea) that's intended for sale or benefit in the market.

Despite the stories we tell ourselves—the one-man myths about lone-wolf inventors working diligently and logically to have a Eureka moment—creativity is messy, social, and full of risk. Creativity can be individualized, but it often opens possibilities for social intersections. Traditionally, research on creativity has focused on the individual as the sole site of creative activity, but, over time, social and collaborative practices (such as ideation) have become more important objects of analysis. No one creates in a vacuum. Take, for example, one typically overlooked concept in studies of organizational creativity: social evaluation, or the processes and practices colleagues use to judge the creative work we produce. In the case of innovation more broadly, social evaluation might include judgment of a product by a market (especially if we're talking about adoption of a product): What is this? What need does it fill? What does it do well/not well? Do we like it? Would we buy it or use it? In both cases, we see a kind of social force "pushing back" on our lone genius creator, shaping her ideas and influencing the creative process.

In fact, the characteristic of "novelty" implies a conversational or dialogic aspect of the creative process itself: problem identification. If things are going great—if there's nothing wrong—then why make anything? Why create? Something motivates creative practices; they don't simply happen. At the heart of "creativity" is a desire for some kind of improvement, or a desire to alleviate something.

Despite the stories we tell ourselves—the one-man myths about lone-wolf inventors working diligently and logically to have a Eureka moment—creativity is messy, social, and full of risk.

Creative people want to change something, and with that change comes risk. Creativity and innovation are essentially conversational and negotiated. They involve asking (overtly or implicitly) questions like: Do you want to change and is the change worth the risk? "Risk" in this case is a general concept: risk to using or doing something new when the outcome is uncertain. Most of the time, risk seems fairly low (for example, How risky is it to buy and use a new smartphone?). Everyone has a different sense for risk this size; some people will find the risk low and some will find it higher. But an uncertain outcome is the greatest risk to creativity—and and it's inseparable from the creative work we do.

The ability to manage the risk of creativity (individually and socially) is key to being creative and doing creative work.

Two approaches to risk

Researchers consider three areas of creativity: individual, social, environmental. (In this article, I use "social" to mean the team or group with which the individual works, and environmental includes organizational factors, such as culture, seen from a macro-social perspective.) All of these influence and are influenced by the other.

In conventional organizations, especially those created by the mid-20th century, the overarching impulse is control. Top-down governance functions as a way for large organizations to coordinate activity across thousands of employees. Information flow is more controlled, because too much information access (or an incorrect amount of information conveyed) contribute to loss of control and coordination. Expertise is critical, but experts are those who have the required experience and knowledge to make decisions in the control environment and, as such, have special access to decision makers and information. For conventional organizations, then, control is about risk reduction; risk tolerance in these environments is lower than other organizations.

Open organizations, some of which were created in the latter quarter of the 20th century, focus much more on contribution. In these contexts, everyone is encouraged to contribute, not just the experts, and more employees have access to information and decision makers. The underlying hierarchical formation might be top-down (the basic structure), but the accountability hierarchy is bottom-up and side-to-side (sometimes making it feel like a house of cards!). Control of information is not as tight, and sharing is based on factors other than "need to know" (that is to say, a culture suffused with transparency means that when you ask, you generally receive). More information, more people contributing, and more access means more risk, generally speaking; an organization that is accustomed to increased risk in its day-to-day operation will naturally have a higher risk tolerance, thereby increasing the likelihood of creativity and innovation.

Modify, try, and learn

Creativity and innovation has a repeatable (albeit messy) and asynchronous process that roughly starts with problem identification, and continues with ideation, solution implementation, and evaluation. The cycle is iterative, overlapping, and stops and starts during any one of those activities—identifying problems in the solution, brainstorming in the evaluation stage, evaluating as part of problem identification, and so on.

Jim Whitehurst describes a cycle of innovation in his article about the "death" of long-term planning. Jim proposes a new way to think about organizational planning: not plan, prescribe, execute, but try, learn, modify. This, he says, has multiple implications for organizational process design: shorter activity cycles, higher tolerance for failure, and adaptable structures, etc. In some ways, however, starting a description of that iterative cycle with "try" assumes the cycle of creativity is already in motion; the initial "modify" (problem identification) that started the creative process is presupposed. For creativity researchers, "modify, try, learn" has an alternative meaning and can be aligned with specific phases of the creative process. In short, everything we "try" is always already a "modification" of something else—another attempt, process, or idea that precedes us. So we will start at the beginning: Where does creativity come from and how? It starts with the individual, or a group of individuals, who have a problem to solve.

Modify (problem identification)

The "modify" phase of Jim's cycle of agility is akin to "problem identification" in the creative process. Something needs to change (needs to modify) in a new and useful way. I call this a "contradiction" in the system—the system of work or behavior is broken in some way—and the system needs to be modified to accommodate a solution to the problem.

In this phase, associate empowerment and motivation, risk tolerance, access to resources, "permission," and information are integral to believing in and using one's ability to initiate change and search for a solution. In an open organization, these variables are better aligned with the values of the organization than in top-down conventional organizations. One benefit of having an organization based on open values (along with leaders who embody them) is that the organization's focus on inclusivity and its support for a diverse set of skills, experiences, and passions creates a base of employees empowered and motivated to address problems. The ability to access resources in an egalitarian way is important here. "Resources" includes other people—like leaders—who are an important resource because of the ways information and various skills can be shared among and between associates. In this way, the tools and ability to connect with others in the organization is foundational to empowerment and information flow.

As open organizations are more associate-centric than leader-centric, permission needn't come "from the top" as much as it does in conventional organizations, where work and workers are more closely managed. Open organizational seems frequently to imply permission to engage associates in organizational-changing, product-changing, business-changing activities. Because of their reliance on transparency, information is increased—almost to points where prioritization and organization of information becomes its own skill.

As open organizations are more associate-centric than leader-centric, permission needn't come "from the top" as much as it does in conventional organizations.

An organization's degree of risk tolerance is critical. Risk tolerance impacts both motivation—the ways employees think about problem solving and what's at stake for their livelihoods and careers in the event that ideas fail. Controlling risk means controlling creativity, because creativity is risk. So the less risk-averse an organization is, the more tolerant it is of creativity and innovation.

Try (solution implementation and experimentation)

The "try" phase of creative work is the one in which a solution is designed, implemented, and tested. Again, we can see where the values of the open organization are aligned closely with what is needed to support creativity in this stage.

The characteristic of "usefulness" implies that the proposed solution has social elements (i.e., to whom will it be useful?). If creative individuals have not consistently engaged their communities and connected with others, this is another phase in which they might do so because the complexity of problems and solutions requires a collaborative effort.

Social evaluation of the solution and community support for experimentation and tolerance of risk is integral here, as is the ability to access associates at any level in the social network and equanimity in accessing resources and information. Once a solution develops, the ability to share with others, get broader feedback on it, and be adaptable to its outcome is desirable.

By pointing out a phase called "try," Jim is suggesting that we leap into the unknown of implementing—of moving from identifying the problem to a new, different place. We often hear the mantra "fail early, fail often," but a more positive approach to this same concept would be "try early, try often." Why would we try early? Because creativity and innovation take time. Why would we try often? Because the first solution is often neither the best nor the only one, and if the first solution is merely a messy first attempt, then many attempts might be needed and the tolerance for risk. Being messy is important to "trying often."

Learn (evaluation and takeaway)

Although Jim points out that "learn" is a phase in his innovation cycle, it is really a context, the foundation of innovation and creativity.

Learning is not separate from any phase, but is present and continuous. When need and motivation dictate but new information, ideas, or connections are sparse, how can we create something novel? If you have an organization whose focus is perfection, then you don't have a learning organization, nor do you have an organization that tolerates risk, adaptability, or inclusivity. Learning is messy, and open (divergent and organized across multiple matrices of thought connecting together in sometimes unexpected ways). We learn by reading, doing, playing, and talking to others in our communities. Transparent feedback from communities and social networks contributes to our learning as well.

Learning is "made ok" by the idea that perfection is not required and failure isn't final but is, instead, a part of the creative process—a mere indication of something that needs to be changed. (Incidentally, a great example of this philosophical view of failure is in the children's book by Andrea Beaty called "Rosie Revere, Engineer" when Rosie's experiences a "flop" yet her attempt is celebrated for the helpful information it contains about the problem and the solution's next step.)

Learning means we can modify and try again, re-initiating the cycle.

Acknowledging negative influences

Open organizations often provide contextual influences that foster creativity and innovation but "influences" aren't automatically positive forces. As with anything, there are influences that actually hinder processes too. For instance, in an associate-centric network, promoting adoptions of new innovations can be difficult, because associates can't lean on leaders to help them when leaders are trying to "guide and ask" rather than "manage and tell." This means that the threshold for adoption might be higher and is the responsibility of the associate making it more difficult to achieve.

Because open organizations place a premium on adaptability, they occasionally encourage a culture of "learning as you go." In theory, this sounds helpful because it's based continuously improving our knowledge and, generally it is, but creativity studies show that a minimum amount of knowledge is necessary for innovative thinking—and that having little or no understanding of an area of knowledge can be as detrimental as having too much (whereby significant expertise without the openness of continual challenging knowledge can, likewise, create patterns of problem solving that no longer apply). So leaders shouldn't seek to hire people who are just "good learners" but who have a base of knowledge in an area or that can be extended in an area in order to provide that solid foundational understanding that creativity needs.

Ultimately, this exploration of creativity emphasizes a crucial difference between creativity and innovation. As we've seen, creativity can involve ideas never shared or implemented; innovations, on the other hand are ideas materially instantiated. Processes designed to foster ideas in an organization are not always the same processes designed to foster innovations—and applying the wrong techniques in the wrong situation can often lead to frustration and confusion.

Execution, for instance, is a focus of our example above (particularly in the "try" phase of the "innovation cycle" we've described). Open organizations can find themselves in situations where they lack the decisiveness and leadership required to make headway on implementing solutions, sometimes with the fear (and excuse) that "things are always changing." Execution requires some planning and coordination of resources and personnel. While things change, they hardly move at the speed of light (the way that industry experts can sometimes suggest).

Planning isn't dead. But it is comprised of some short cycles (product innovations) and some longer cycles (for social/cultural innovation), depending on your objectives and key results.

Try, learn, modify: A final word

The "Try, Learn, Modify" cycle of innovation Jim Whitehurst advances shares similarities with commonly studied phases of creative processes, and leaders can adopt those processes to improve innovation in their organizations. While the "Try, Learn, Modify" activities are process-centric, the influences surrounding them—like the mindset and culture of the organization, and individual associates' creative abilities—are significant contributors to the specific implementation of the "Try, Learn, Modify" initiative (as well as its outcomes). There is no "one-size-fits-all" solution to the problem of "having a more creative organization" or of "being more creative"; different organizations and individuals will have different experiences based on a variety of influences. Risk tolerance and open organization values are just a few of the influences that could positively benefit creative individuals and the way they engage with their work—but they are among the most critical.

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My experience as a manager – and in particular, as the leader of a company – has been shaped by two quotes that have helped frame my thinking about that role. One is from…

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Heidi Hess von Ludewig researches networked workplace creativity from the systems perspective, which means that she examines the relationships of multiple elements within the workplace that influence how individuals and groups perform innovative and creative work.


A reflection of the times is that this article wants to align creativity with entrepreneurialism, as if the only creativity that is worthwhile produces something marketable.
My view is that most creativity, pure creativity, has no particular value other than to the intellectual curiosity of the creator. It's different from engineering, where you try to assemble something new or better from existing pieces.

Interesting thought! I would have said the opposite: that my separation of creativity from innovation would have aligned innovation with entrepreneurialism, not creativity and entrepreneurialism.

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