Why we need to rethink creativity in business

13 July 2017

If you want to boost creativity in the workplace, first know what you are dealing with, advises dt ogilvie.

Mention creativity, and the image that springs to mind is likely to be that of the solitary artist hard at work in a studio, or the lone inventor toiling in a shed, splashes of colour and welding flare in cramped, disordered spaces. When it comes to fostering creativity in business, those are not helpful images, says dt ogilvie, Distinguished Professor of Urban Entrepreneurship at New York's Rochester Institute of Technology. Worse, she says the notions we have about what creativity is can influence how we go about encouraging it into the workplace – get that wrong and the result is likely to be frustration and wasted investment.

"A person in business can certainly be creative, but the creativity is for a different purpose. It is not merely emotional expression," says Professor ogilvie.

"The ultimate goal is to produce something useful; something that can be put into the marketplace and get a return – whether that is a product, a service, or a social good."

She says that creativity can also be applied to organisational structures, models, supply chains, value chains, distribution channels, packaging, marketing – in fact, every aspect of business activity.

"What happens is businesses do something great and then they get stuck and lose the ability to adapt and evolve. So, companies need to be on the edge of chaos. And they need to not be afraid of having perturbations throughout the organisation, rather than trying to dampen things down and create a sanitised environment."

Too often, says ogilvie, senior management will say to employees: "We want you to be creative, but remember that in this company we don't tolerate failure." She says that a fundamental prerequisite for creativity to flourish is a management team that is comfortable with risk-taking, and that understands the value of failure.

"Failure leads to learnings that can be useful for future initiatives. Of course, systems should be put in place to ensure those failures are not catastrophic ones."

She is also sceptical of companies whose efforts to instil creativity focus on flamboyant gestures such as brightly coloured "play" spaces. The approach may work for a Silicon Valley heavyweight with an informal and youthful corporate culture, she says, but they are not at the heart of creativity.

"A lot of people do that because they misapprehend what creativity is. Creativity is messy, and it is iterative. Putting in soft bean bag chairs and games alone will not get you there. Sure, being in a playful mood can enhance creativity, but in and of itself, it is not enough."

She says that creativity, as it relates to business, has three qualities that might be counterintuitive:

• it is a group activity

• it involves a cluster of traits

• it is dynamic, and evolves over time.

"It takes a group of people, with different skills, different types of creativity and thinking, different experiences and backgrounds, to create products or services that the market will value".

She says that this is particularly true for sustainable creativity, rather than a one-off product or service. And, as the group works over time, the creativity increases.

"When we think of Apple, we tend to think of Steve Jobs and forget about Steve Wozniak, Jonathan Ives, and the others at Apple who turned his ideas into gold. When we think of Edison, we forget about the 'Invention Factory' that turned his ideas into products that changed our world," she says.

"For creativity to work, the whole company must be aligned behind it. You need to give people permission to be creative and not punish them when they are. And you must give them training and recognition."

Ways of working creatively can be trialled with a small group first, then rolled out gradually, says ogilvie.

She says it is to a company's benefit if its employees are continually thinking about how they can improve the company. They may suggest incremental changes, such as altering processes, or more major innovations, including ideas for new products or even the reorganisation of the business to make it more effective.

So, how does a company evaluate whether or not a new focus on creativity is working?

By looking at whether people come up with ideas that have merit, she says. And then doing low-cost experiments to see where the ideas lead.

Professor dt ogilvie visited the Business School in June, 2017, where she gave a seminar on 'creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship'.

dt ogilvie

Dr dt ogilvie is Distinguished Professor of Urban Entrepreneurship at New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology.



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