UK: THAT VITAL SPARK. - Brainstorming, brainwriting, force field analysis, mind-mapping and more - corporate creativity-boosting is back with a baffling array of tools. But the focus has shifted from encouraging individuals to come up with the 'Big Idea'

by John Thackray.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Brainstorming, brainwriting, force field analysis, mind-mapping and more - corporate creativity-boosting is back with a baffling array of tools. But the focus has shifted from encouraging individuals to come up with the 'Big Idea' to building innovation into the company's processes.

The belief that human creativity is not an innate gift and can be fostered by the right environment, or by specialised training, has been popular in US business for several decades. By the mid-'80s, blue-chip companies - IBM, General Electric, AT&T among them - were happily hiring outside experts to help their personnel to remove those mental blocks that dampen everybody's natural creative fire.

Corporate creativity enhancement continues on a roll today: in part because of the new work structures in which individual responsiveness, initiative and creative problem-solving are critical to success. The spread of the concept of the 'learning corporation' also puts a premium on individual and group creativity. Among companies with more than 100 employees, four out of 10 conduct some kind of creativity orientation or training, according to Gerald Haman, president of Creative Learning International. And the reason for this spread, Haman believes, 'is the need to deal creatively with significant amounts of information that flow through organisations'.

Yet in the US, corporate creativity enhancement has gone through some significant changes in recent years. The quantum leap approaches of the past have lost popularity. A spirit of intellectual conservatism is hardly surprising in the light of resource scarcity and personal hardship caused by downsizing from coast-to-coast. Human resource personnel have simply been too busy with outplacement for casualties and the 'mourning' and morale-boosting of survivors. Now that redundancy and attrition have apparently run their course, creativity enhancement has resurfaced, albeit in a modified form.

Summing up the new climate, Stanley Gryskiewicz, senior fellow for creativity at the Centre for Creative Leadership, says: 'Creativity has been off in the wilderness for a while, but downsizing has emphasised its importance. So it is enjoying a comeback, a renaissance in the corporation.' But with a difference: 'Creativity enhancement with a two or three-day course is not the way that most companies are going: instead they are trying to build creativity into their processes, to make it systemic.' 'Creativity in itself is useless from a corporate perspective - regardless of how interesting it might be to the individual - unless you can take and apply ideas in the workplace,' says David Hardy, senior manager for creativity and innovation at the Institute for Learning and Innovation at the Bank of Montreal. The bank has built a $50 million campus for employees, both to train and condition. 'Skills can be taught but that won't help unless the environment is conducive to change. So a lot of our work goes into studying the factors in the workplace environment that inhibit or foster innovation,' Hardy adds.

Says Deborah Dougherty, a professor at Montreal's McGill University and specialist on institutional innovation, 'You can just hear in your mind some boss saying gruffly "Our people aren't creative enough - that's our big problem." And he gets himself a consultant and the staff goes off to a three-day seminar on creativity. Then they return to the same old organisation that remains systematically designed to thwart creativity, as most bureaucracies do.' Professor Dougherty, a sociologist specialising in bureaucracy, believes that 'The underlying ideology of many companies and departments is short-term - weekly or quarterly - hitting the budget numbers.

If a manager who thinks of nothing else sees people just sitting around, what's he going to do? Will he assume that they are having creative thoughts? Or does he go over and say, "Why aren't you looking busy?" - the devil makes work for idle hands - the old Protestant ethic sort of thing.' In addition to focusing more on context and environment, creativity training has become democratised. It used to be targeted at R&D, marketing and advertising and public relations - functions where, it was thought, a breakthrough idea would illuminate the sky like fireworks. Lately, an increasing number of corporations (Du Pont and Eastman Kodak are examples) have been using training to obtain higher creativity on the shop floor among clerical staff and professionals like engineers and computer information systems personnel. Along with the democratisation has come an awareness that creativity isn't necessarily Big Bang, and that the corporation can benefit from a lot of small bangs, even squeaks.

Major benefits can accrue to an organisation when working groups begin to pull together creatively. The roots of group creativity lie in diversity and cross-stimulation. 'You have got to get a mix of divergent thinkers working on an issue,' notes Edward S Varian Jr, a product development manager at Union Carbide Chemical. Varian believes that at least one of Union Carbide's fledgling businesses came out of its creativity conditioning - super critical carbon dioxide for paints and solvents. In response to regulations limiting the use of some solvents in coating, the idea was put forward to use a gas, like carbon dioxide. 'When that was first aired, people just laughed and hooted. It seemed off the wall. And it was explained that you can't use a gas in paint for all sorts of reasons.' Eventually, with special chemical agents and equipment to apply the gas, it turned out to be feasible. From this, Carbide learnt that, in Varian's words, 'The most important thing with regard to creativity is to have methodical processes to enhance individual and group creativity. Creativity isn't just something that happens to a handful of bright people.' A myriad of creativity-enhancing processes already exist and for companies dipping their toes in for the first time the choices are bewildering. Muddying the waters further, there are probably three dozen statements of what creativity is and isn't, and how it differs from innovation. To add to the intellectual challenge, consultants offer an array of esoteric creativity-boosting tools like brain-storming, brain-writing, mind-mapping, storyboarding, force field analysis, progressive abstractions and more.

There is still fierce resistance in many quarters to programmes that use such far-out tools to boost creativity. According to Richard A Harriman, managing partner of Synectics, Inc., there is much lip-service and timidity about taking the initiative. 'Most US managers say creativity and innovation are important, but most have not yet found ways to use them to maximise competitive positions,' he says. The chief obstacle that Harriman sees is not idea-generation, 'but resistance to the implementation and realisation of real and novel ideas'.

J Daniel Couger, professor of management science at the University of Colorado Springs, and founder of that school's Centre for Research on Creativity and Innovation, is the author of Creative Problem Solving and Opportunity Finding, published by Boyd & Fraser, Dansvers, Massachusetts. Couger has done work on creativity enhancement with Microsoft, IBM and others in the technology field. 'Inevitably, halfway through my presentation to a management group, a manager will raise his hand and say, "Wait a minute. I don't want my people to be more creative. They can't implement the systems I need done on time, and within budget, as it is." This kind of objection assumes that encouraging employees to be more creative will just give them a licence to sit around and "blue sky". But this is not a true picture of real creativity,' says Couger.

Part of the problem, obviously, is semantic and centres on the popular notion that creativity can only be the attribute of a Michelangelo. Couger does not strive to get executives to come up with the 'Big Idea'. 'In fact, that's the kind of thinking that distorts creativity and gives people who've never had a Big Idea the notion that they aren't creative,' he says. 'The reality is that most inventions result from a methodological, systematic process.' Couger encourages executive task forces on any development project simply to pause at four pre-determined points and address creativity issues and possibilities before going on to the next stage. 'These stops lengthen the development by a half of 1%. But their return on investment is substantial. In two creativity programmes I've fostered, at United Technologies and Federal Express, return on investments were around 200%,' he says.

Terry C Snow, management information systems manager at Philips LMS in Colorado Springs, has found the Couger structure a helpful, low-cost investment. 'I thought it would help change the environment so that our people could look at better ways to do things, to let them take some chances. And the payoff has been tremendous. Because people are given a chance to use their natural talents you get amazing results,' Snow says. 'We took creativity measurement surveys before and after the training, and found a significant improvement when we were through.' Creativity focus has become, for him, standard operating procedure.

Another company that has gone to great lengths to make creativity systemic is Eclipse, a 50 year-old, 550-person capital goods maker, specialising in industrial heat treatment. Eclipse calls itself a 'Deming company' and thus runs without any financial incentives or disincentives for performance. Every employee is expected to be entirely self-motivating. The company demands that all workers have and stick to a personal two-year self-development plan for additional education and enrichment experiences - a quarter of these to be in areas unrelated to work tasks.

'Creativity and innovation is a function of connecting ideas and people and systems which the world has never seen connected before,' says John Myers, Eclipse's vice president of human resources. As part of his obligation, Myers took up computer studies and has also delved into the technology and markets for catalytic converters - just in case this knowledge is useful to the company in the future. 'We systematically take people out of their comfort zones,' he says. 'For example, we've had welders and design engineers taking art classes, painting pictures to put on their refrigerators at home.' Another creativity-boosting practice is to take employees on outside tours of significant locations. Greetings card maker Hallmark, for example, takes some of its design staff to art openings abroad.

Hallmark's foreign jollies are, however, a chasm removed from the three-day creativity course of old. Today's explorers no longer go in search of the elusive creative muse, only to lose her on return to work. On the contrary, the '90s muse is finding her home in the office - comprehensively captured by the creative organisation's people and processes.

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