Reclaiming Creativity to Achieve Innovation

By Les Wallace, PhD

In Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon McKenzie writes about asking a group of first graders how many were artists and having every hand in the room go up. When he followed them to fifth grade and repeated the question only a couple of hands went up. Their confidence in being creative had ebbed as they matriculated through an educational system of routine patterns of learning and classroom compliance. Somewhere along the way creativity—artistry—appeared to fall off their self-image radar screen.

Fast forward to the workplace where most of us settle into comfortable routines, traditional management meetings, and hierarchy. McKenzie’s “hairball” metaphor describes the gravitational pull of bureaucracy that prevents creative ideas from gaining flight. In the traditional work setting, thinking of ourselves as creative isn’t at the top of our agenda as we come to work everyday. Most of us are trying to be successful with the hand we’ve been dealt, read the minds of management, and keep a low profile. Innovation? That’s something left to the bigwigs. And when’s the last time they used an idea from our team, anyway?

A Known Context for Creativity.

Pick up any book chronicling the culture of the most innovative organizations in the world and you will find they work tirelessly to create a culture of creativity and innovation. 3M, Google, City of Palo Alto, CA., Apple Computer, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, Los Angeles Police Department, Zappos, are all recognized in their sector as leaders in new ideas. They do so by setting creativity as an expectation, not waiting until products, services, or models are old or customers complain to re-design.

What the most innovative companies demonstrate is that new thinking can be cultivated with the right leadership. However, it has to be cultivated, it won’t erupt spontaneously. Leadership can bring form to the creative juices dormant in your teams. Here are some lessons from the most creative organizations:


Most employees don’t spontaneously offer up new ideas. Managers and organizational leadership need to give clear permission to challenge assumptions about how we work. I’ve never met an employee in over 30 years of consulting who didn’t have an idea—not all were great but many were very good. What keeps them from bubbling up? Managers who don’t engage employees by asking what they think, or, worse, don’t listen at all. Even in military command structures the concept of “permission to speak freely” is a well known phenomena to gaining the perceptions of those lower in the command chain.

Active CEO Encouragement.

Culture is set from the top down in an organization and if creativity and innovation are important the leader’s behavior demonstrates it. Frequent messages celebrating new changes that came from employee’s input, attendance at meetings to encourage thinking differently about our processes, and flooding teams with information from customers all encourage more creatively. What gets encouraged gets attempted and what gets attempted increases the potential that a big idea will spring from the pack.

Customer Input.

The 21st Century relationship with customers includes designing new offerings or new features to existing offerings in the customer’s lap. That means lots of input from customers about what they like, don’t like, and would like to see in our offering portfolio. New products, new features, new delivery systems, it doesn’t matter. We must accept that our customers are always thinking about how they use our products/services and the value they enjoy. Customers are the first to feel the need for change and if we stay close to them, we benefit from being the first to make needed adjustments in our offerings. Remember, also, to flood work teams with customer perceptions and new ideas to keep our employees connected to why we exist—to provide value to our customers.


On any team there are those more inherently neurologically restless than others. These folks like to tinker with ideas, think “what if,” and are good at challenging traditional assumptions about how we do things around here. Give these folks a champion role—let them help encourage creative input from others and be a listening conduit for what the team is thinking. Give them some wiggle room to tinker with new ideas. 3M Corporation has formalized this by creating innovation grants for employees to work on new ideas. You don’t have to go that far but you do need to make sure your champions energize and encourage new thinking and give them as much leeway as possible to experiment.

Face-to-Face Thinking.

Most successful innovation companies assure their most creative people congregate face-to-face around creative opportunities. When a promising new idea surfaces, these companies pull together breakthrough teams to “work up” the concepts or redesign and tap the synergy by bringing them together as a team. GE did this with their storied “work out” teams. Proctor and Gamble pulls together diverse personnel to scope and polish new ideas, frequently including a customer on the team. Some companies can afford to reassign personnel for extended periods for big ideas; others simply find time each week for these innovation teams to work together on an idea. Energy levels go up when teams are brought together and given permission to tinker with processes.

Fresh Eyes.

The naïve frequently ask the best questions. In the mind of the expert there are few new alternatives to consider. In the mind of the beginner, new alternatives are not hidden from view. On any team innovation work it helps to invite someone not familiar with the product or processes to join the team. They ask the “what if” questions and challenge assumptions that many others may have taken for granted. This fresh perspective helps teams move out of the logjam that can occur because of familiarity with the topic.

Open Source Networking.

This technology phenomena of allowing diverse folks to input into computer code design or content can also work to assure fresh eyes scan your creative opportunity. Wikipedia is a great example of allowing diverse users to come together to provide useful perspective on topics ( In functional production environments from mining to oil platforms it’s not uncommon to post a challenge or dilemma a team is working to solve or improve upon and encourage anyone from anyplace in the organization to provide input. Years ago a cook on an oil platform provided a tethering solution to connecting up flexible pipeline based upon his experience as a child with his fathers fishing fleet. Creative ideas are not simply the province of Research and Development or top leadership. Organizations who invite inclusive input from anywhere in the organization (or customers, suppliers, other partners) find a more robust environment of breakthrough thinking than less inclusive organizations.

My premise should be clear: innovation is lurking right in your backyard, plenty of it. It’s yours to mine. The leadership behavior and competencies for facilitating creative thinking are not difficult to execute they are simply not expected or reinforced sufficiently in most organizations. Many organizations wait to tinker until they lose market share or products and services are in the declining mature phase of their lifecycle. Innovative organizations make creativity an innovation value that gets lived every day. Further, the annual report on corporate innovation done each year by BusinessWeek magazine consistently points out how profit margin and stock return is significantly greater in the most innovative companies. Innovation is not just for fun–it’s also for fun and profit.

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