There’s nothing new about creativity – without it we would still be living in caves. But organisations are trying harder than ever to channel creative ideas to give them a competitive edge. Creativity is defined as finding something that did not exist before, and innovation is finding a new, practical application for it. “The inventor of the transistor was creative; but the person who saw its potential and invented the Sony Walkman was innovative, ” says Professor Malcolm Higgs of Henley Management College.
The story so far
The study of innovation began as part of economic theory, examining why one kind of business failed and another one started. Originally, academics in the 1950s saw creativity as a component of intelligence.
The issue climbed up corporate agendas in the 1960s as America developed a neurosis about falling behind the Soviet Union in the space race.
New educational theories were tested in schools, and institutions like the Stanford Research Institute in California investigated creativity in the workplace.
By the 1980s creativity was thought more likely to be a trait of personality rather than intelligence.
The latest development is the idea of “creative leadership” in which senior staff are supposed to foster learning organisations which end the blame culture and have systems to reward new ideas, and this is one of the training profession’s greatest challenges.
The promise is clear – in order to develop new products, companies need to harness the creativity of staff.
“Because products are now cheaper, quality makes the difference,” says Bettina von Stamm, coordinator of London Business School’s innovation exchange, “innovation is needed to find new, high-quality products.”
Russell Harper, sales and business development manager of the Oxford Psychologists Press/Sigma, adds, “If it’s properly understood, innovation should generate better products, improved procedures and better processes.”
But Karen Giles, adviser on employee resourcing at the Institute of Personnel and Development, goes further.
“Creativity and innovation aren’t just relevant to product development – they’re a critical factor in changing the way organisations work,” she says.
Pros and cons
Companies in every sector are being urged to take innovation seriously. The downside is that words like “creativity” and “innovation” sound good in company reports, but are frequently misunderstood.
And there is a price to pay – to become “creative” organisations must learn to embrace risk.
“Creativity is not cosy, it involves upheaval and change,” stresses Tudor Rickards, of Manchester Business School. “Organisations cannot survive without creative destruction – there’s no point saying whether it is good or bad, it is just necessary.”
Who’s on board?
BT runs schemes for staff to suggest ways of making profits or saving money. The company makes awards ranging from £25 to £30,000 for successful ideas, and staff ideas on improving efficiency have saved the company an estimated £1m per week.
Ford also runs a suggestion scheme with cross-functional teams to generate new ideas and has given all UK staff a PC, printer and Internet access so they can help develop the firm’s Internet retailing strategy.
Smaller firms actively promoting creativity include Carphone Warehouse, which encourages staff to propose how the business could be improved by rewarding all new suggestions with a small cash bonus.
Hi-fi chain Richer Sounds runs a similar scheme publishing performance reports, which list suggestions received and the money they have earned.
Changing work patterns, organisational fluidity and technological change will put a premium on creativity, says Tudor Rickards of Manchester Business School.
“There will be more and more space for people to use their imagination. Also there will be more globally connected people. The future of creativity is closely linked to the future of technology.”
If creativity is to make a real impact in the workplace, “empowerment” will have to be more than a buzzword, and the views of the rank-and-file foot soldiers will have to be heard.
As Charles Handy has pointed out, senior executives tend to be blinkered, and ideas have to come from staff who are still dealing with customers rather than sitting in meetings.