Creativity: the Engine of Innovation

Creativity is the engine of innovation and along with risk it is the vital key to successful innovation.

But why is creativity important?

Because for anything of value to exist, it will have required creativity. It's that simple.

Creative ideas turn into products which then turn into value. The important thing is that these creative concepts distinguish your business from the competition and provide you with advantage. Truly creative ideas enable your business to gain a leadership position which is important in this super-fast, hyper competitive world.

Myths of creativity

Myths have clouded our understanding of creativity. Creativity itself has become to mean something which it is not. Mostly that being creative is only the domain of the 'lucky' few or worse the eccentric, the mad even. If someone is different, they must be weird as they sit outside of the norm. It is however those that look at things differently that are the rising stars of the world of business. The misfits.

Some think creativity is exclusively practiced by artists, painters, writers and composers. And this is a myth. From a business perspective, being creative should not be confused with being an artist.

For art, the value is in the eye of the viewer and how that piece of art moves them and makes them feel. It has value but its value is visual and emotive. Art of course is creative but it does not have a practical purpose because it is spiritual by its very nature.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines art as, 'the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.'

Whilst wonderful, in itself art does not generate value beyond the visual and emotional and is dependent on taste, perspective and subjectivity.

For creativity in design and in business, it must be defined. Creativity in business is judged by the value it can generate, by its purpose and results. The idea or product itself may well trigger an emotional response, many of the best ones do, but overall the value is obvious, tangible and practical.

One reason creativity is misunderstood is that throughout our education at school, 'creative' arts was only given focus when the 'real' work was done. Its status in the eyes of those in authority was quite lowly. So we learned the more important subjects 'parrot fashion' but didn't learn to think creatively and express our ideas. For those in authority, creativity maybe 'interesting' but there are always far more deserving subjects that warrant time and investment. This leads many to think creativity is therefore not that important.

Indeed most of what we would call the 'creative arts' rank low down on the league table of importance far below the more left brain pursuits of maths, language and science. But this narrow definition of creativity and intelligence has served us badly.

Because if creativity is only something that is given licence as a hobby, it's limiting and confining. If creativity is not considered real work, the impression may be that it cannot have value. And that's very wrong as it prevents us from being creative.

Kill the lightbulb

Another key myth is that creativity is a single thing generated by a single bolt of inspiration from a single person. It isn't. It's a result of networks. Stephen Johnson in his famous Ted talk explains that “a new idea is a network of neurons in your brain into patterns that have never configured before. The question is how do you get your brain into environments where these networks will be more likely to form.'? If we want to be more innovative then we have to build environments where people come together where ideas collide and networks form."

The point that Johnson is making is that the problem with the eureka moment is people want to be able to provide others with a captivating narrative and saying it was a sudden bolt of inspiration sounds exciting and dramatic. However, he says, '"if you go back and look at historical record it turns out that a lot of important ideas have very long incubation period."

As Johnson concludes in his talk, by having an open innovative system that fosters creativity new ideas connect with other new ideas and breakthroughs happen.

So just being creative for an afternoon for once a month with the people in your team who are focused on productivity is unlikely to work. It's piecemeal and you’re only paying lip service to it. If you want the results you have to do it properly and totally.

A creative want

Things are changing and thankfully some businesses certainly understand the importance of creativity. Because competing with lower cost centres in places like China means you have to be clever. And to be clever you have to be creative.

Personally I think that everyone has the capacity to be creative. All children are creative. Just watch them play. Creativity is a very human thing. We would not have evolved without creative problem solving. Evolution would have halted humanity's progress at a certain point and we would have remained merely hunters and gatherers.

The point of creativity

When being creative, it is worth asking why? What really will be the point to it?

What is the point is critical. If everyone in the business explodes into creativity, generating 'far out' ideas, this could result in a kind of creative chaos. Especially if the ideas do not have a practical application, as they will not create new value and disorder will reign supreme. A balance is important as with most things.

If you're in the business of selling something then being creative for your clients adds tremendous value to the relationship you have and the performance of their business. It will fundamentally help people, and business, and this alone is fulfilling. However, the idea must have a point.

As I've said, many businesses understand this. And there are a number of well-oiled stories of how great brands encourage creativity. Google with their famous 20% of time given to employees to work on new ideas (this led to Gmail), then there is 3M, who years ahead of Google offers 15% time for employees (this led to post it notes), Hub Spot allows teams to share insight and people to sit in with other teams, IBM hosts 'Jams' which are giant brainstorming events focused on one topic and the list of examples of these go on.

The fact is that each of these companies possess a restless desire for innovation and are not overly hierarchical in their structure. They are like this because they have committed themselves to innovation. Creativity is a fundamental commitment instilled by leadership to create a culture of innovation. And for innovation to be realised then creativity must exist.

Productivity (left) and Creative (right)

One of the problems for manufacturing focused companies (and I think this as true of industrial printing as of any other sector), is that our left brain cultures mean we have become over obsessed with measurement. Humans like complexity and proof we are doing the right thing. We want validation and evidence we are doing a good job. Being efficient, executing and delivering is incredibly important. But balance, a kind of 'yin and yang'(right and left) is the approach that will yield the best results.

Right brain dominated people have ideas. They are not focused on process and therefore can look at things differently which is essential when a company or organisation requires creativity. As I said a mix of both is important - right brain will generate ideas, left will take the idea and make it happen on time, in budget and make it work.

To conclude what do we need to foster creativity? In short the right people, the right culture of commitment through leadership giving people the permission and added to that, time. It takes time to be creative, and when we are all focused on productivity, there is no time for ideas to form.

The leadership team of a business must allow time for creativity. For people to be creative they need time, permission and for this the culture defines whether creativity will thrive or not. A highly productive business is more unlikely to be creative because everyone is too busy being productive and therefore intolerant of anything they can't readily measure.

So what?

• Leadership must be committed. A vision for creativity will mean change and some may not like this as it will upset their view of the world whilst pushing them out of their comfort zone. 
• Creativity is the engine of innovation but the responsibility for leadership is to give it some fuel.
• If your people don't like change and resist it, be patient and inclusive, but if after a time they still refuse then you may have the wrong type of people.
• You must ask yourself some tough questions such as: What is your culture? Does it permit creativity?
• Do you have an environment where people feel safe to try things out?
• What is your plan for creativity?
• Do you have the right people mix for creativity? 
• Right brainers may have the initial spark of an idea but left brainers will execute and complete
• Don't involve or recruit people that are fixated with doing it one way. The left brainers also need to be open minded and positive individuals
• What is your vision for the business? What do you want to achieve?
• The creative ideas must be focused and the innovation must be managed in a way that both inspires and delivers value.
• Put in place a system for managing creativity
• And lastly, have fun!