Creative block

In the first of three articles looking at innovation in the
workplace, Professor Amin Rajan explores obstacles to creativity throughout the
world, unearthing a tension between traditional business practices and creative
culture

Worldwide, there is growing recognition that in the last wave of competition
in the 1990s, organisations of all sizes were converging on similar, though
exacting standards of costs, reliability, functionality and quality for goods
and services alike. In the current wave, at best, these factors can ensure
survival – they are no longer differentiators that ensure growth, according to
a recent 27-country study commissioned by The Chartered Institute of Management
Accountants.

This is because consumerism is becoming a major movement in its own right –
at least, in the European economies covered in the study. Under it, customers
want benefits that go well beyond economic criteria to include social, ethical
and environmental considerations. These are becoming increasingly important as
customers create their own value systems, aided and abetted by growing
affluence, individualism and regulation. As a result, creativity has become one
of the key avenues to achieve differentiation.

In this context, creativity is about generating new ideas and implementing
them in innovative ways. Innovation not only relates to products and services
offered in the marketplace, it also covers business processes and
organisational structures that underpin them in the workplace.

Routes to innovation

Structured creativity This is based on a clear step-by-step
controlled approach that identifies a specific problem and provides a creative
solution – something that taskforces often do.

Non-linear creativity This builds on open-minded thinking resulting
from brainstorming – it generates ideas without much regard to how they are
connected.

Provoked creativity This uses a catalyst to provide new insights and
understanding – the catalyst may be an analogy, a metaphor, a colour, and so
on.

Eureka creativity This covers real breakthroughs when something new
springs into mind that did not exist before – it is rare, intense, and without
pattern, but with a clear defining moment.

It is clear that the first three are a matter of incremental improvements,
and the last is a breakthrough discovery. However, this survey has sought to
identify business practices that influence all of them because organisations
could not provide separate assessments for individual types of creativity. That
limitation has not detracted from gaining insights into factors that promote
new ideas, or from understanding their regional dimension.

For example, more than two in three organisations in every region regard
creativity as "very important" and one in three as "moderately
important" to business success in today’s global environment. Four in five
organisations in every region also regard creativity as an investment rather
than a cost.

The main difference, however, lies neither in the importance they attach to
creativity nor in the tools used to promote it. But it is in the expectations
of its outcomes.

More organisations in the UK than anywhere else feel that creativity is not
important in its own right, irrespective of whether it generates bottom-line
benefits. At the other extreme, far more organisations in Asia Pacific, Middle
East and Africa view creativity as a long-term investment, duly accepting the
risk that the pay-off may not be significant.

Obstacles to creativity

These differing expectations are indicative of three factors that are
especially strong in the UK and, to a lesser extent, in continental Europe.

Ownership structure In the case of the UK and continental Europe, a
bigger proportion of the sample is made up of publicly quoted companies which
are more exposed to pressures from external shareholders. In marked contrast,
Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa has a far bigger proportion of
privately-owned companies in its sample, so the differences in attitude to
creativity are probably influenced as much – if not more – by ownership
structure as by national cultures.

Regulatory bodies By definition, creative people are willing to take
risks to challenge rules, behaviour and the status quo. In the UK and continental
Europe, a lot of these rules are increasingly imposed by a growing battery of
regulatory bodies. By seeking to regulate the day-to-day conduct of businesses,
these rules limit the scope for creativity by imposing a more structured work
environment with a bias towards conformity and conservatism.

Predictability paradox As a phenomenon, consumerism is more
pronounced in the UK and continental Europe than elsewhere in the sample. As
customers have come to expect ever-rising standards of quality and functionality,
they have inadvertently promoted what has come to be known as the
creativity-predictability paradox. Customers want suppliers to meet various
pre-set benchmark standards in these and other areas. That means having ever
more rigid processes and procedures at the producer end.

At the same time, customers also expect a lot of creativity to be employed
to produce predictable outcomes. But by definition, creativity can only produce
unpredictable outcomes. Growth in consumerism is thus seen as a limiting
factor.

The paradox is more acute in the UK and on the continent than elsewhere.
Over time, it is expected to spread to other regions, as their economies become
more advanced.

The paradox is manifested through various inhibitors of creativity. Some are
cultural – embedded in the psyche of the organisation. Others are structural –
emanating from physical processes and the work environment.

Cultural inhibitors in the UK

– Lack of a can-do mindset – "We tried it years ago and it didn’t
work"

– The tribalism syndrome – "That’s the way we do things around
here"

– Risk aversion – "We’ll think about that at a later date"

Structural inhibitors in the UK

– Time pressures on managers to deliver quick results – "Focus on this
quarter’stargets"

– Employees not having enough time or space – "They check in their
passion at the gate"

– Lack of a coherent vision on creativity – "This place is overrun by
bean counters"

As the economy becomes weaker in response to global recessionary pressures,
the cultural inhibitors are likely to ease and the structural ones get worse,
with fewer employees doing more work.

Killers of creativity have been around for nearly 2,000 years. Each
generation has experienced growing constraints as societies have matured and
become more regulated. Equally, the unprecedented economic growth since the
Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century also tells us that humans have
shown remarkable ingenuity in overcoming the constraints on creativity.

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