Sir Ken Robinson: the creative thinker

Author and creativity guru Sir Ken Robinson has been described as ‘one of America’s finest imports’. The Liverpool-born Los Angeles resident shares his thoughts on HR and its role in workplace creativity.

Q Is there a place for creativity in HR?

A That’s the prime place for it. I’ve heard people say that the trouble is that you can’t define creativity, but I define it as the process of having original ideas that have value. All three parts of that are important. There are three misconceptions about creativity:

  1. Not everybody is creative: There is a real feeling, particularly in organisations, that only a very few people really are creative. Companies often plan their HR policies on that basis. They divide their workforce into two groups: the creatives and the suits. HR, to me, is an essential part of that function – through them we can find everybody’s creative function.
  2. Creativity is about special things: People think that creativity is about advertising or design. Yet many major companies have succeeded by being highly creative, in very different ways. Apple is famously good at producing new products, whereas Walmart, a much bigger company, has never produced any products, but has been highly innovative in systems, such as supply chain management. Google and Starbucks have been very successful at services. So a creative organisation involves everybody, not just the creatives.
  3. You’re either creative or you’re not: You can do a lot to make people more creative. You can train them to be more creative, and you can provide management processes and cultural conditions in organisations where creativity is much more likely to prosper.

Q What should HR be doing to identify and encourage creativity?

A There are several things for HR departments to do. They need to keep an eye on the diversity of the company, because innovation and creativity thrive on diversity. By diversity I mean all the usual things such as gender and cultural background, but it’s also to do with skills and talents.

Very often in organisations there is a huge range of unknown, untapped talent lying beneath the surface, because people are locked into their job descriptions. They are defined by their job descriptions rather than by all the things they are capable of doing if only they have the opportunity. HR needs to spot those talents.

It’s also about recruitment policies. Too many organisations are still recruiting people on the basis of what kind of degree they’ve got. People end up being locked into their CV, so it’s important at the point of recruitment but it’s also a central part of the whole process of professional development. And I think that also means how managers especially are trained and developed. People get promoted out of the things they’re good at.

We have very linear, mechanistic attitudes to organisations, but really, human organisations are much more like organisms than mechanisms. It’s about feelings and values, and the best organisations I know understand that. They have a view about what type of culture they need to create so that people can flourish.

Q Who has got it right?

A Apple has a very interesting culture. When people turn up there, they’re given their own laptop and essentially told to get on with it. There’s a lot of latitude to develop your own work within Apple. There are professional career routes, but if you find yourself doing something that you shine at, people will pick you up.

Google has a policy of giving people 20% of their time – the equivalent of a day a week – to work on new ideas. They even give staff time off to learn things that aren’t work-related. And it’s not just the big companies thinking this way.

Q You’ve said before that people can be divorced from their natural talent: how can that be avoided?

A The first step is to find out what their natural talents are – you need to create different sorts of opportunities for people. If you give people the chance to do something else, it’s astonishing what they come up with.

Sir Ken Robinson was in London to speak at a London Business Forum event to launch his latest book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, reviewed by Tara Craig.

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