There are two important steps companies need to follow in order to genuinely stimulate creativity on an organisation-wide basis and drive innovation for the purposes of hard competitive advantage, according to author, speaker and international advisor Ken Robinson.
A lot of organisations struggle with the process of cultivating creativity, and Robinson said one of the main reasons for this is common misconceptions around creativity.
“For example, people think that only certain people are creative or that creativity only comes from certain departments,” said Robinson.
“There is an idea that creativity is only associated with functions in an organisation, such as marketing or advertising – which is not true; I think everyone is creative.”
Another common challenge for organisations lies in original thinking – and even though organisations might want this it can also be perceived as a threat by some.
“As much as people talk about change and innovation, they don’t always like it,” he said.
“They get worried about it and the impact on their bottom line if they start changing things, so there are all sorts of institutional blocks that get in the way of creativity.”
Robinson, who spoke at the Australian Workplace Learning Conference, said there were two important steps for organisations looking to improve innovation.
“If innovation isn’t actively promoted, and if there aren’t any incentives to be more innovative, then people get the message that innovation isn’t a priority and they tend to pull back,” said Robinson.
Second, companies also have to operationalise the process of innovation in order to achieve genuine change.
“It’s not enough to think about creativity and innovation in a half-hearted way, ie ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had some fresh ideas?’
“There are processes for generating new ideas systematically, and the best companies do this,” said Robinson, who explained that these companies see creativity as an overall function of what they do.
“There is an idea that creativity is only associated with functions in an organisation, such as marketing or advertising – which is not true; I think everyone is creative”
Another reason companies struggle with creativity and innovation is because they haven’t really seen the importance of it, and Robinson observed that organisations are mortal and organic and have a lifespan like any other living thing.
“They start off with a burst of energy, they grow, and if they do well, they will mature – but inevitably they will go into decline unless something is done to stop this,” he said.
“Organisations are not permanent monuments; they are made up of people, so innovation and creativity are the lifeblood of organisations because they help keep them fresh, renewed, adaptable and flexible.
“So, encouraging creativity is not a frivolous thing in organisations – it’s imperative.”
Leadership and the role of HR
Robinson explained that a company’s leadership plays a critical role in the process, as they inevitably set strategy and processes for executing this, as well as the culture that nurtures innovation throughout an organisation.
“One of the problems with leaders in organisations is that they often think of themselves as the ones who have to make all the decisions or come up with all the ideas,” he said.
“There are many different ways of thinking about leadership and they don’t all involve command and control attitudes.
“People read between the lines, and if they see that the leadership of their organisation doesn’t get it, they get the message that it’s not that important or worth investing their time or effort in.”
HR has an important role to play in this process, and Robinson said HR should sit on the executive leadership team as it can have a significant impact on company culture.
However, HR cannot do it alone as the drive for innovation has to permeate an organisation and he said it is hard for HR to unilaterally try and change the culture of a company.
“It’s not enough to think about creativity and innovation in a half-hearted way, ie ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had some fresh ideas?’”
To this end, he said it is better to have leadership that supports creativity and innovation – more like climate control and creating a climate of possibility within the organisation.
“What we’re talking about here is the culture of the company in terms of what matters, what is rewarded, what is recognised and what ultimately counts,” he said.
“If the executive leadership of the company get it and really understand that innovation is a strategic issue that is critical to surviving and thriving, then the HR department is potentially an enormous resource.”
The first route for HR here is to go to the executive and talk about their potential plans in a way that will show demonstrable benefit to the company.
“It’s always better to approach the leadership of the organisation and the people whose support you need with a plan that is positive and practical – and preferably that will solve a problem they have,” said Robinson.
“If HR recognises the importance of this – and most people in HR do – then they can work with other people in the organisation to put together more detailed and tailored action plans.”
Understanding creativity and innovation
Concepts around imagination, creativity and innovation often get confused, and Robinson explained that it is important to understand the difference between the three terms.
Imagination is the source of creativity which comes from within people, while creativity is the process of bringing this into form to help an organisation with new possibilities and problem-solving.
Innovation is about the practical application of creativity, putting ideas into practice and bringing them to market: “they might be ideas about generating new kinds of revenue or new services, or how a company itself operates, or how systems operate within a company, for example,” said Robinson.
“It’s important to get clear about the definition of the terms involved and then have a practical program to help people take control of them.”
“If the executive leadership of the company get it and really understand that innovation is a strategic issue that is critical to surviving and thriving, then the HR department is potentially an enormous resource”
There is also a difference between general creativity and personal creativity, and Robinson said general creativity relates to a set of skills required for generating, developing and evaluating ideas, which most people can learn.
“There are all kinds of systems that help people unblock creativity and help their capacity to come up with new thoughts and ways of thinking,” he said.
Personal creativity is more about people discovering their own distinctive talents rather than finding things they are good at.
“This has to be something they are both good at and they also love to do, as an awful lot of people are good at certain things but don’t really like them, so if you find something you are good at something and you love it then that’s a whole different proposition,” he said.
This process (or quest, as Robinson calls it) comes down to a number of conditions: aptitude, passion, attitude and opportunity.
Aptitude is about having a natural feel or talent for something, while passion is the process of the application of this talent – and loving it.
Attitude (or disposition) is also important, because Robinson said that people who achieve a lot in a certain area are often characterised by feeling positive about it and are resilient in their pursuit of this.
“A lot of people who don’t do well in their lives often blame circumstances, but this is often due their own self-doubt or lack of commitment than anything else,” Robinson said.
Opportunity also has a “huge influence” – but Robinson said people can also make their own opportunity and said some see hidden opportunities where others don’t.