Lack of Creativity;Who is to Blame?

In your organization who is ultimately accountable for creativity. Before you answer let me share a story with you.

Back in 1988 when first beginning my consulting practice I was hired by the director of the new business development group at Standard Oil of Ohio (now British Petroleum) in Cleveland for a very specific purpose. The group had been charged with coming up with new lines of business for the company and after nearly five years had failed to develop anything that had made it through the further funding process at SOHIO. The director knew me as someone who was able to encourage both individuals and groups to think newly about old or existing problems. He had seen me working with groups around seemingly intractable issues and saw that with new thinking could emerge new courses of action. Maybe I could help.

As I began a relationship with a new client then my initial approach was to spend some time just observing the ongoing practices before beginning to make any suggestions or proposing a solution. As I watched and questioned I was surprised to find that the group had developed a number of both products and services that would have seemed promising to me given my understanding of the mission they had been charged with. Hmmm?

After this early period of observation I began probing into the process the group needed to follow in order to receive funding to scale up their creations.  It was during this investigation that I began to suspect what the issue holding the group back might be.

“When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for the famed teacher, Diogenes replied: “Only stand out of my light.” Perhaps some day we shall know how to heighten creativity. Until then, one of the best things we can do for creative men and a woman is to stand out of their light.”

John W. Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare

Before I go on with the story let me ask you this. Have you any idea how many books and articles have been published on the topic of creativity? No, neither do I exactly but a single word search on “creativity” at Amazon yields nearly 18,000 references, at Google the number goes to 16M when you search on “creativity in the workplace.” So what gives? A lot has been written and still we complain about a lack of creativity and innovation.

“Those who urge us to “think different,” … almost never do so themselves.”

 Thomas Frank, TED Talks are Lying to You

So now, back at SOHIO… I spent some time with the folks who were responsible for the review process that my client’s creations were failing to make it through. Nice people. As you might suspect, financial types, steeped in the traditions of trying to ascertain the return on investment of any monies they lent to an internal project. From these conversations I determined that they viewed my client group as well meaning but starry eyed for the most part, however they assured me they were eager to have them come up with something practical that would merit further investment. Translation, “We like these guys we just wish they would bring us something we know will work or at least looks familiar.”

As it turned out my relationship with this client was short lived. My recommendation to my client, which he followed, was to disband the group and have people go back to positions inside SOHIO where they could be successful. In my explanation for the recommendation I pointed out what they already knew; many of the ideas they had previously come up with were in fact viable, just not inside the evaluation process as it was calibrated at SOHIO in 1988. In short, if the group presented anything to the funding committee that did not look like the SOHIO of 1988 they were not going to approve further investment. The company was making plenty of money at the time, the committee members were all lifers at SOHIO who had neither inclination nor incentive to take any risk so saying no was the safest course of action.

In the end  when the group did disband three of its members including my client left SOHIO with one of their creations and started up what has become a very successful diagnostics company that provides predictive maintenance services to heavy equipment users.

Did that committee at SOHIO make a tragic mistake? Not really, their actions were really quite typical for the situation. But isn’t it possible that we’ve made progress in breaking through this type of thinking since 1988?  Thomas Frank in a lengthy piece titled “TED talks are lying to you” sums it up nicely, “What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise.” As long as the creative process is devoted to charting a new future for the organization it will have a hard time getting funding if it is being run by people who see things mostly through the lens of past success.

“…far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus.”

                                              Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  ‘Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention’

So then what’s the punch line? Doesn’t someone need to be accountable for creativity in our organizations? Yes, it is probably a good idea. It is probably also a good idea to realize that inside evaluation alone may not be all that’s necessary to insure that what is truly creative is recognized.

Or maybe…when you say creative you really mean different but predictable?


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