Creativity and the Role of the Leader

Last Updated Feb 17, 2009 2:22 PM EST

The Idea in Brief


In today's innovation-driven economy, understanding how to generate great ideas is an urgent managerial priority. And that calls for major doses of creativity. But many leaders assume creativity is too elusive and intangible to be managed.

It's true that you can't manage creativity. But you can manage for creativity, say innovation leaders and experts who participated in a 2008 Harvard Business School colloquium. Among their recommendations for fostering the conditions in which creativity flourishes:

  • Stop thinking of yourself as the wellspring of ideas that employees execute. Instead, elicit and champion others' ideas.
  • Open your organization to diverse perspectives--by getting people of different disciplines, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to share their thinking.
  • Know when to impose controls on the creative process (such as during the commercialization phase) and when not to (during early-idea generation).


The Idea in Practice


To enhance organizational creativity, consider these practices:


Tap Ideas from All Ranks

  • Elicit ideas from people throughout your organization. Google's founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page tracked the progress of ideas that came from them versus ideas that bubbled up from the ranks--and discovered a higher success rate in the latter category.
  • Motivate people to contribute ideas by making it safe to fail. Stress that the goal is to experiment constantly, fail early and often — and learn as much as possible in the process. Convince people that they won't be punished or humiliated if they speak up or make mistakes.
  • Further engage people by being an appreciative audience. Asking questions about a project and providing even a word of sincere recognition can be more motivating than money.

Open Your Company to Diverse Perspectives


Innovation is more likely when diverse people come together to solve a problem. Even within the mind of an individual, diversity enhances creativity. Individuals who have multiple social identities--for instance, Asian and American, female and engineer--display higher levels of creativity when problems require them to draw on their different realms of knowledge.

The lesson? Avoid suppressing parts of people's identity. For example, craft a culture where female engineers can feel comfortable wearing feminine clothing.


Protect Creatives from Bureaucracy


As a fresh idea travels through an organization toward commercialization, powerful constituencies often beat it into a shape that conforms to the existing model. Protect those doing creative work from this hostile environment by clearing paths for them around obstacles.


Know When to Impose Controls--and When Not To


The early discovery phase of the creative process is inherently confusing and inefficient. So don't impose efficiency-minded controls during that phase. Instead, apply them when the game has moved from discovery to reliability and commercialization.

Know which phase you're in, and ensure that people with the right skills (such as ability to manage the handoff to the commercialization phase) are involved in the right stages.


Create a Filtering Mechanism


For every idea with real commercial promise, there are dozens that aren't worth pursuing. How to winnow out the bad from the good? Have people from a variety of disciplines, functions, and viewpoints act as filters. Also consider using business "accelerators" (outside companies that test product ideas) to gauge their potential.


Further Reading


Articles

Secrets of Successful Innovation


HBR Article Collection

December 2007


Gourmet jelly beans. Baseball fantasy camps. A film about a French rat who yearns to be a chef. These and other smash-hit products were all dreamed up in organizations focused on cooking up the Next Big Thing before rivals could. The secret behind such innovations? It's not just a penchant for creative thinking. Even the freshest idea isn't worth much unless consumers are hungry for it and you can transform the idea into a profitable offering. To meet these criteria, blend creativity with discipline. First, unleash your employees' creative powers by activating their thirst for a juicy challenge. Keys include giving them stretch assignments and allowing them to decide how to tackle tasks. But don't let people run amok--you'll end up with unmarketable ideas. Structure brainstorming sessions to include people with diverse thinking styles. And guide their creative thinking by posing concrete questions. Season creativity with discipline, and you get a feast of great ideas you can transform into profitable reality.


Books


Juicing the Orange: How to Turn Creativity into a Powerful Business Advantage


Harvard Business Press

June 2006

by Pat Fallon and Fred Senn


Too many companies think creativity means throwing money into marketing efforts and giving lip service to "out of the box" thinking. But such efforts rarely have a positive impact on the bottom line. The authors argue that leaders have more creativity within their organizations than they realize--but they inadvertently stifle it or channel it in ineffective ways. They outline a disciplined approach to building creativity actively into the organizational culture and leveraging that creativity into campaigns that deliver measurable results. Drawing from 25 years of successful marketing and acclaimed, award-winning work, the authors show that bankable, creative ideas come from zeroing in on the one key business problem that must be solved and then rigorously unearthing insights that will lead to a spectacular solution. Behind-the-scenes stories of successful and failed campaigns for companies in diverse industries reveal the core secrets of training for creativity: develop a proprietary brand emotion, offer big ideas without a big budget, and get customers to seek out your message. Illustrating the link between creativity and profits, Juicing the Orange helps industry players measure their success at the cash register.


When Sparks Fly: Harnessing the Power of Group Creativity


Harvard Business Press

January 2005

by Walter Swap and Dorothy Leonard-Barton


Where do the best creative ideas come from? Most managers assume that it's the readily identifiable "creative types" that offer the quickest route to out-of-the-box thinking. Yet, say Leonard and Swap, most innovations spring from well-led group interactions. The authors sweep aside conventional thinking about creativity and offer proven strategies for stimulating and directing the group dynamics that lie at the heart of innovative thinking. When Sparks Fly outlines and analyzes each step in the creative process and gives practical suggestions for managing teams.

Copyright (c) 2008 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.