Creativity and the Modern Enterprise, Part 1

Stephen DeAngelis

July 1, 2021

We’ve all heard the business mantra “innovate or die.” In this article, I’d like to discuss innovation’s symbiotic traveling companion: creativity. Innovation invariably begins with an idea. In the innovation formula (innovation = new x valuable x realized), “new” really means “new idea.” If any of the variables of the innovation formula equals zero, there is no innovation — no new idea, no innovation. The question business leaders should be asking themselves is this: Where do creative ideas come from? Marketing expert Steve Schildwachter (@SteveS1) asserts that artificial intelligence (AI) can help; however, he believes real creativity remains a human capability. “Creativity takes judgment,” he writes, “and human judgment comes from each person’s uniqueness, and their interaction with other people’s uniquenesses, to create something with passion and imagination. Perhaps, like me, you believe that we are more than machines. We have a spirit, a soul if you will, that animates us and gives us the ability to create sculptures, novels, choreography, and advertising. No machine can ever replicate that.”[1]

 

Some people seem to be naturally more creative than other people; which raises another question: Can anyone be creative? Most innovation gurus believe people can be trained or helped to be more creative. Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant), a professor of management and of psychology at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, insists the best way to become more creative is to generate a constant stream of ideas — be they good or bad. He insists, “Some of the most original people in history achieved their level of fame or legend because they wouldn’t stop coming up with ideas.”[2] He explains:

 

The great originals throughout history did not have few ideas, they had tons of them, and way more than most of their peers. If you look at musicians, for example — Mozart, Bach, Beethoven — their average hit rate is not any higher than many composers you have never heard of. What differentiates them is that they came up with a lot more ideas. So 600, or more than 1,000 in a couple of those cases. The reason for that is you have to generate a lot of variety to be original. If you just come up with a few ideas, your first few are usually the most obvious. You have to rule out the familiar in order to get to the novel. But most people never do that. They fall in love with their first idea, or they end up questioning whether they have the ability to come up with more ideas.”

 

Journalist Jess Shankleman (@Jess_Shankleman) writes, “In recent years, organizations and businesses have begun to understand that creativity isn’t just for an artist at an easel or a poet crouched over his notebook.”[3] If being an innovative company is required for survival in today’s business world, then helping people come up with lots of ideas should be the first tool in your company’s survival kit. In Part 2 of this article, I will discuss some expert suggestions you can use to encourage more employee creativity.

 

Separating Great Ideas from the Pack

 

As Grant’s examples of creative musicians clearly demonstrates, not all ideas have the same merit. That means businesses must judge between ideas; and, the businesses exercising the best judgment are likely to come out on top. Judging ideas may be one way AI can help companies perform better. Schildwachter asks, “Can AI advance the work of creativity?” His answer is a qualified “yes.” He explains, “AI can certainly enable a human being to see new possibilities. For example, large amounts of data may help us predict future changes in consumer behavior. Knowing these possibilities may lead to a new insight on how to position a product or service. There’s great value in AI when it comes to aiding our thinking process. It can give us insight that inspires creativity. But that creativity is human, not artificial.” Grant believes the best judges of ideas are other creative people. He explains:

 

Most people are overconfident in their own ideas because they created them, and it’s very easy to sell yourself on the pros of an idea and lose sight of the cons. People then say to themselves, ‘You need some distance. Let me go to managers.’ But the data suggest managers aren’t great judges, either, for the opposite reason. Just as you’re too positive, managers tend to be too negative. … What you want to do is ask ‘Is this going to appeal to the audience’ as opposed to ‘Is this similar to what’s come before?’ So, whom do you turn to if you can’t trust yourself and you can’t rely on your managers who tend to be a little bit risk averse — peers; fellow creators.”

 

Another way to separate good ideas from mediocre ones is to follow the evidence. Grant notes, “I’m amazed by the number of leaders who make decisions, especially about people, based on intuition instead of evidence. When I talk to leaders about this, the defense that usually comes up is, ‘I have this wealth of experience, and the reason I was put in this leadership role is to leverage that experience that no one else has.’ My response is, ‘Well, I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn from your experiences, I just want you to learn from people’s experiences, too. That’s what data are.'” When data is available to help you make decisions about competing ideas, use it. Cognitive computing can help because it’s useful in ambiguous situations. Charles Conn and Robert McLean, authors of Bulletproof Problem Solving: The One Skill That Changes Everything, explain, “Most good problem solving has a lot of trial and error. … We form hypotheses, porpoise into the data, and then surface and refine (or throw out) our initial guess at the answer. This above all requires an embrace of imperfection and a tolerance for ambiguity — and a gambler’s sense of probabilities. … We have truckloads of evidence showing that human beings aren’t good intuitive statisticians. Guesses based on gut instinct can be wildly wrong. … Recent research shows that we are better at solving problems when we think in terms of odds rather than certainties.”[4]

 

Innovation and Creativity are Traveling Companions

 

Urko Wood (@urko_wood), founder and president of Reveal Growth Consultants, writes, “One reason people mistakenly think that innovation is inherently risky is because they confuse it with creativity. Innovation and creativity are different.”[5] Wood insists, “Your innovation process should do all the preparatory work required to enable your solution experts to focus on the right things and consistently deliver results.” In other words, an institutional innovation process can help foster creativity. He explains, “For an innovation process to consistently deliver results, it must start with discovering the target customers’ unmet needs.” The most important word in that sentence is “unmet.” As Wood explains, “It’s not enough to only discover the customers’ needs. We must also determine which of their needs are unmet, i.e., important and unsatisfied. The more important and less satisfied a need is, the greater the opportunity for innovation and growth it presents. … Only important unsatisfied needs are worthy of pursuit. And only after you have identified and ranked the customers’ unmet needs are you ready to generate solution ideas that will reliably address your customers’ unmet needs. Your innovation process should set the stage for creativity by identifying and ranking the customers’ unmet needs and then bringing them into the room with your solution experts. Then creativity will inevitably happen.”

 

There are other ways creative ideas are generated in addition to identifying and solving unmet needs. Great ideas often result from asking great questions. Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack (@JudahThinks) suggest there are seven questions innovators tend to ask and answer (and those seven questions can be remembered using the mnemonic LUMIAMI).[6] They are:

 

1. LOOK. “What could you look at in a new way? Can you reverse a perspective, take a 30,000-foot view, or even ignore something you know to be true?”

 

2. USE. “What could you use in a new way, or for the first time? Think about ways to substitute your product or service in place of something else, for example.”

 

3. MOVE. “What could you move — changing its position, frequency, or speed? If you’ve been incubating an idea internally, consider how you might expose it to people outside your company. For products, think about importing features from other industries.”

 

4. INTERCONNECT. “What could you interconnect, for the first time or in a new way? What could you combine or connect to make the concept more powerful? What new groups or partners could you expose the idea to?”

 

5. ALTER. “What could you alter, in terms of design and performance? Explore how you could standardize processes. Look for ways to create a novel look and feel.”

 

6. MAKE. “What can you make that is truly new? This is hard, because these days it seems like there is nothing unique under the sun. However, try to think about what new meaning you might be able to create or infuse your innovation with. Is there a way to make something that already exists more specialized and focused?”

 

7. IMAGINE. “What can you imagine that would create a great experience for someone? Look at ways to simplify the buying process, for example.”

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

Hopefully, you’re convinced that creativity (i.e., generating ideas) is the first essential step in the innovation process. As I noted at the beginning of this article, in Part 2, I will discuss expert recommendations about how you can make your employees more creative. Making them more creative is the best way to ensure your company is more innovative.

 

Footnotes
[1] Steve Schildwachter, “Artificial Intelligence vs. Genuine Creativity,” Business 2 Community, 20 January 2021.
[2] Rik Kirkland, “Six secrets to true originality,” McKinsey & Company, 5 August 2016.
[3] Jess Shankleman, “Brian Eno’s Unconventional Approach to Getting More Creative,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 1 April 2021.
[4] Charles Conn and Robert McLean, “Six problem-solving mindsets for very uncertain times,” McKinsey Quarterly, 15 September 2020.
[5] Urko Wood, “Innovation sets the stage for creativity,” The Business Journals, 23 November 2020.
[6] Melody Wilding, “7 Questions That Lead to an ‘Aha Moment’, According to Research,” Inc., 24 April 2017.