“Creativity” in Business: Getting it Right

By Andy Boynton, with William Bole, Special for US Daily Review.

The recent worldwide mourning for Steve Jobs was of course a tribute to the man and his amazing accomplishments. But the remembrances also revealed something fairly new about business in America—the honor that is being paid to creativity and originality.

Last year, IBM asked more than 1500 CEOs what leadership qualities they valued most, and more than two-thirds of the corporate chiefs named “creativity.” Rating fairly low in their estimations were such conventional attributes as dedication and “influence.” In other studies as well, creativity has begun to outshine other presumed pillars of leadership such as hard work and even integrity.

This past summer, the marketing firm Allison & Partners launched the results of its first annual “C-Factors Index,” which analyzes the impact of creativity on business and other sectors. Researchers from the firm spoke with many of the world’s leading CEOs and CMOs, and in a survey, 73 percent of these leaders agreed that we’ve entered an “imagination” economy, according to Allison & Partners. Sixty-two percent of CEOs felt that creativity was important to their own roles.

These and other findings point up the extent to which innovation has become a life-and-death matter for corporations. Leaders have little choice but to “Think Different,” more imaginatively, as the Apple slogan professed.

The general sentiment is clear enough. It’s less apparent that most people understand what creativity means in a corporate milieu.

If it means anything valuable, it’s that ideas are indispensable in today’s hyper-competitive economy. The ideas, big and small, have to come not just from uniquely creative types, but from people at all levels of the organization. And, the best business ideas are often right there in front of our noses (more about that in a moment).

Here’s where the mantra of creativity could begin to lead us a bit off track. The word is often reserved for relatively small numbers of people who are assigned to think of highly original ideas. But that’s not the best way to think about the challenges of an idea-driven economy. It doesn’t lend well to the idea work that needs to be done.

To their credit, the people at Allison & Partners avoid some of the traps. They underline the broad scope of creative thinking and application in any successful operation today.

“What our research shows is that we’ve entered a new imagination-inspired ecosystem that rewards ideation over mere production, and marks creativity as an undeniable catalyst to an organization’s success—one that now extends throughout the entire supply chain,” CEO Scott Allison wrote Oct. 4 in an online column for Forbes. “It’s no longer a skill set relegated to the design department. It’s a winning competency required for business success and leadership today.”

Yes, but how do you unleash the ideas that bring about leadership and success? To begin with, it helps to break with those common misconceptions about creativity in a business environment, including the myth of originality. For example, it’s easy to conjure up images of a brilliant person sitting in an office, finger pressed tightly against forehead, mustering all the brainpower to hatch a thoroughly original notion.

That is a popular image, but in reality, the ideas that fuel innovation are seldom original in any unmingled way. More often than not, they are borrowed, much in the way that Apple’s Phil Schiller glommed onto what became a winning feature of the original iPods.

A marketing executive (not a techie), Schiller did not dream up the notion of a click wheel–the lightning-fast scroll that helped initially separate the iPod from its poor MP3 cousins. He borrowed this feature from a motley assortment of electronics products dating to the early 1980s. Part of Schiller’s feat was to take an idea from one environment and transport it to another. This was not really a stroke of creative genius or an act of stunning originality. It was a simple case of repurposing an idea.

One leader who goes to bat for repurposing is Jack Hughes, founder and chairman of TopCoder. The global software company has pioneered the model of “crowdsourcing” in that industry, spawning a community of more than 250,000 freelance software developers around the world. Hughes has helped create intense buzz around the organization by adapting ideas from other business and non-business arenas. For example, he has developed a first-of-its-kind ratings system for independent software coders, modeled on Major League Baseball statistics.

“Almost everything I do is borrowed and repurposed from others in other fields,” Hughes told me. “I look at myself as an innovator, which is different than original thinking. Original thinkers are very rare.” Hughes would reserve this distinction for the greatest scientists and mathematicians.

Is there any harm in supposing that the best leaders (and workers) are uniquely creative types who think original thoughts all the time? You bet. Just think about the people who attempt to operate on this notion. In trying to manufacture ideas, they’ll indulge in an elusive search for pure originality. They’ll often steer away from any ideas “Not Invented Here” in their organization or their own heads.

In contrast, someone like Sam Walton could build a commercial empire by just going out and looking for ideas. The retail icon had a career-long habit of prowling for ideas in other people’s stores, taking notes in a blue spiral notebook. He gladly conceded that all the ideas tried at Wal-Mart, such as how and where to display items, were copied from other stores.

“You can learn from anybody,” Walton wrote in his autobiography. “I probably learned the most by studying what my competitor was doing across the street.”

Walton did not buy into the notion that the only great idea is a pristinely original one. He understood that the best business ideas are already out there, waiting to be spotted and then shaped into an innovation. These ideas do not spring necessarily from innate creativity or from the minds of brilliant people. Rather, they come to those who are in the habit of looking for such ideas—all around them, all the time.

Andy Boynton is Dean of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, and coauthor, with Bill Fischer, of The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make Them Happen, published this year by Jossey-Bass and written with journalist William Bole (with whom he also wrote this article). He blogs at http://blogs.forbes.com/andyboynton/.


All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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