#148 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 3
Ten Keys to Creative Innovation
Sternberg is IBM professor of psychology and education at Yale
Lubart is a postdoctoral associate at the University of Paris V.
Most people agree
that increasing the creativity of the work force will help almost
any company on the road to preeminence.
That's the simple part.
The hard part is figuring out how to increase innovation. Fortunately, the process is not as complicated as it seems.
We suggest ten keys that will inspire creativity and
innovation in the workplace; all of them are easy to implement
(unless the corporate culture inhibits creativity—in which case,
they may require a changed organizational context).
Reward creativity in those who display it.
Perhaps the most obvious (but most ignored) route to
increased creativity is to reward the creative people.
Yet any number of managers say they want creative ideas and
suggestions, only to ignore or even punish them.
Remember, people respond to what you do, not what you say,
so if you want creativity, you must concretely and visibly reward it.
must reward creativity down the management line; otherwise,
workers will realize that your call for creativity is not
supported by top management (or at least your immediate
you’re high in the chain of command, then encourage subordinates
to reward creativity, and give them incentives for it.
In one recent
consulting venture with a top executive who doubted that the
managers below him were rewarding creativity, we suggested that he
put out a suggestion box, so workers could bypass traditional
lines of communication and pass creative suggestions directly to
him. Workers were
assured that their suggestions would be confidential, and they
were offered cash incentives for any that were adopted.
(There were, of course, no penalties for “far out” or
Don't assume that
you already reward creative work.
Many people instinctively believe they do so, but are
hard-pressed to identify how they actually do it.
Our suggestion: list
the concrete, visible rewards you offer for creativity, and then
lengthen and improve the list. This is your first step toward
generating better creative performance.
Take sensible risks.
We call our
theory the “investment theory of creativity,” because we
believe creative people and enterprises, like good investors,
“buy low and sell high.”
Good investors know major returns require sensible risks.
Equally, just as nobody gets rich depositing in 5-percent
savings accounts, there is always a risk in creativity.
creative ideas cut against the grain of vested interests and old
habits. But in
industrial R&D, only sensible risks will bring satisfactory
To be truly
creative, an idea must not only be novel, but also appropriate to
the task. Too often,
ideas we reject out-of-hand are the truly creative ones, so if you
invent (or hear about) an idea that sounds ridiculous at first,
you might profit by giving it another glance.
risks, and letting others take them, means being prepared for
failure; creative people inevitably make mistakes.
Obviously, you shouldn’t reward mindless mistakes, but
you must tolerate the mistakes that result from genuine attempts
at creativity, because in the long run that's where the real
returns will originate. At
the same time, just as investors use a mix of investments, you can
balance risks by using a diversified mix of innovation strategies.
Overcome obstacles, don't let them overcome you.
above, people who “buy low and sell high” inevitably face
obstacles, since creative people encounter roadblocks by the very
nature of their work. The
question isn’t whether creative people face obstacles, it’s
whether they have the perseverance and fortitude to overcome them.
most enterprises takes the form of a pyramid; fewer and fewer
people make it to the higher levels.
In creative enterprises, the creative people--who accept
short-term losses for long-term gains--are the ones who reach the
Often, it seems
that people doing the least creative thinking are rewarded in the
short term; after all, they don’t threaten anyone.
But they also stand little chance of making significant
contributions to long-term endeavors, and eventually they often
disappear into the woodwork.
creative ideas rarely sell themselves, and you'll need to fight
for your ideas and proposals, and you'll often face senseless,
seemingly counterproductive objections.
When Copernicus proposed that the earth revolves around the
sun, common people simply looked at the sky to "refute"
his "crazy" theory; their reaction could be charitably
described as "not very supportive."
He persevered—as you must—if you want to overturn the
Think for the long-term.
We believe the
single greatest obstacle facing business is the short-term
perspective of managers and investors.
You can see this from the countless businesses which
require an immediate return on investments, or simply by noting that stocks are
held nowadays for a shorter period than ever before.
People want a rapid return on their investments; they want
annual reports to show that this year was better than last. The
price for this short-term perspective is a loss in innovation,
since, despite the need for risky, basic change, only minor
changes are safe in this "take-shelter" climate. To put
it another way, although basic research is needed, only applied
research is allowed.
If we hope to
innovate in a rapidly changing marketplace, we must think
strategically, not just tactically; be proactive, not reactive.
Too often, though, we play catch-up games with our
competitors, trying to make money off the niches they’ve
established. (That would work fine if they were not already moving to the
next niche, where they’ll beat us again.)
Genuine creativity requires a long time-horizon, not a
Why are so many
of yesterday's successes today's failures? Often because the initial success is followed by complacency;
as managers become content to rest on their laurels instead of
seeking new rewards.
Although a few
creative ideas are immortal (think of evolution or the yin and
yang of Oriental philosophy), most have a natural life cycle. Since few of us can expect to come up with an immortal idea,
we must recognize when we must exceed our present success and move
to the next idea. Just
as canny investors know when to sell, creative people must
recognize that, after an idea has achieved its successes and
profits, it’s time to move on. We must look toward the future,
not be bound by the past.
Beware of knowing too little and too much.
We all know that
“a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”
In the R&D lab, ignorance can be costly if our creative
idea is something the competition has already tried and discarded.
To avoid repeating mistakes, and to build on past
contributions, we must know what's been done in our field.
Knowing too much
can be equally dangerous, although the real problem is not the
knowledge per se, but the stereotypical and fixated patterns of
behavior it can cause. Sometimes,
“experts” make the stupidest mistakes because they’re
unwilling to acknowledge that the best solutions may be ones they
don’t know of, and never would have generated. Certain that
they’re correct, they close themselves off to other
The cost of
expertise can thus be rigidity and intolerance of change.
To grow, we must be open to new ideas and experiences.
When you hear people say, “that’s not the way things
are done around here,” or, “of course that would never
work,” beware: this
knowledge is hindering, not helping, creativity.
Although we like
to think that inspired ideas come in sudden bursts, they seldom
do. Rather, they
develop slowly, piece by piece.
At first, the pieces don’t fit nicely; some are simply
wrong. When we feel
we’re trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces, we
may be tempted to quit and declare the puzzle insoluble. To be creative, a person must learn to tolerate the ambiguity
and frustration of problem-solving and decision-making. We must expect long periods when things make no sense,
despite the external and internal pressures to solve the problem
the most creative solutions are generated by people who are
willing to wait—who can put up with ambiguity long enough to
find the optimal solution. Although
it’s hard to wait, the results often justify the frustrating,
Reconceptualize insoluble or intractable problems.
If a problem
doesn’t readily have a good solution, it may seem intractable
enough to be avoided, or utterly insoluble.
There’s where it makes sense to reformulate the problem.
Many of the most
creative inventions result from such reformulations.
For example, Post-It notes came about because someone
formulated an adhesive that was too weak.
Although he was being paid to invent stronger adhesives, he
saw a unique use for it—and it became an extremely profitable
I know someone
who solved the problem of having a terrible boss not by finding a
new job, but by finding a new job for the boss (unbeknownst to the
boss, of course). He
then got the boss’s job.
here is simple: When
you simply cannot solve a problem, don't bang your head against
the wall. Instead,
try to devise another way to formulate the problem. The difficulty
may lie not with the lack of solutions, but with the way the
problem is posed.
Find what you love to do.
We know that
people do their most creative work when they love doing what
they’re doing. There’s
no substitute for intrinsic motivation, that is, motivation that
comes from within. Although
such motivation doesn’t guarantee creativity, dislike or lack of
interest in work practically guarantees non-creativity.
Have you ever hired someone to do one thing, only to switch
the person quickly to another job because it better fit his or her
talents and interests? Sometimes, the same job can be redesigned to convert it from
boring to interesting, though you'll usually need to give the
employee more responsibility.
Know when to shape environments, and when to leave them.
Suppose you're in
an environment that doesn’t reward creativity.
It may be that the most creative challenge you face is
creating an environment that fosters creativity, but unless
you’re in upper management, the process will be slow and
arduous, involving incremental changes.
Each step you take toward implementing these ten keys will
be one more step toward producing a creative environment.
it's impossible. If
top management is so complacent or so scared that it nips
creativity in the bud, ask yourself whether you really want to
stay. Do you have
other options? Too
often, people stay where they are from simple failure to consider
possibilities, or from automatically assuming other possibilities
are closed to them. As
the old Country and Western song says, "You got to know when
to hold, and when to fold."
You may be able to find plenty of hidden creativity in
yourself--at another position or another company.
ten things you can do to achieve creativity in your environment,
but it’s up to you to find an environment in which you can do
them, and then go ahead. If
you find yourself saying, “It would be nice, but...,” then
you’re not committed to creativity.
Being creative requires a commitment—and it’s not an
The one thing
that is certain is that it’s a commitment worth making.