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The Real Challenge in Fostering Creativity
By Norah Bolton, President, Dynamic Thinking

As organizations try to improve their success in the marketplace, the new cry is for creativity. Outdoor adventure, improvised drama, simulations of all kinds, loosening up by flapping your wings like a chicken -- these are new elixir that will somehow let the genie out of the bottle.


As organizations try to improve their success in the marketplace, the new cry is for creativity. Outdoor adventure, improvised drama, simulations of all kinds, loosening up by flapping your wings like a chicken -- these are new elixir that will somehow let the genie out of the bottle.

It's a misguided approach for two reasons. People are already creative but the organizations that they work for don't have systems to respond to their ideas for improvement or innovation. If the organization wants to reap the benefit of their creativity, stressing personal development may not be the best way to address the problem..

Alan Robinson and Sam Stern have studied the question of creativity from the organizational perspective and have come up with a wealth of entertaining stories and positive suggestions in their recent book, Corporate Creativity, How Innovation and Improvement Actually Happen. (San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publications, 1998).

A company is creative, they state, when its employees do something new and potentially useful without being shown or taught. The result is an improvement in the way something in the organization is done now or it can result in an entirely different approach.

In response to those who want to hand pick the right group and form a creativity elite, the authors contend that the approach simply won't work. In their research they found that it's impossible to predict who will be creative, -- and for that matter, in what way, when, where, and how. What they do know is why.

What all employees share is an ability to get interested in something. And when that interest is pursued on the job, the results are often amazing.

The most remarkable story concerns a mother of three working part time for the state government of Massachusetts. She found a small clause in federal transfer payment legislation that ultimately allowed the state to claim an extra half billion dollars in the first year and two hundred million each year in subsequent years. Such a person would never be viewed as a potential high flyer in the creativity stakes. The miracle is that anyone listened to her because the natural response to a part time clerk would be, "Don't be ridiculous". Ironically the state later proposed a piece of legislation that would limit the employment of any part time worker to a maximum of ten years. The woman had been there for twelve.

Official stories of innovative breakthroughs often stress the single accomplishments of a lone ranger at the top of the organizational ladder single-mindedly pressing ahead. The truth is much messier. Ideas can languish for years. Often the really innovative result comes from someone starting out in the company who doesn't have the expertise to know that something can't be done and tries to do it anyway.

Rather than fixing the uncreative employee, Robinson and Stern want to go to work on the uncreative system. Their prime example of how not to do it is the Soviet Union, who in 1990 employed half the engineers in the world. A bad system, they say, will beat a good person every time.

They also want us to get over the idea that the creative person is a social misfit, who behaves and dresses eccentrically and loves to break all the rules. Work consists of both the routine and the non-routine. Certain activities have to be planned and performed with consistency. Quality, safety and efficiency are paramount.

Creativity results when something unexpected happens and someone reacts to it because he or she has sufficient interest and knowledge to do so. It doesn't mean that superior intelligence or expertise has to be present or the willingness to take extreme risks. And the first insight is probably a small one. Funnily enough financial rewards haven't worked particularly well and one company found that by eliminating modest financial rewards for good suggestions the ideas actually doubled. Creativity is its own reward.

The first attempt to create a system for dealing with good ideas was the suggestion box


Norah Bolton, is President of Dynamic Thinking, specializing in helping people refine and organize their ideas and strategy. For more information visit www.dynamicthinking.com or call 1-800-884-0489.

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