#148 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 3          March 1995

Ten Keys to Creative Innovation
by Robert J. Sternberg, Ph.D. and Todd I. Lubart, Ph.D.

Dr. Sternberg is IBM professor of psychology and education at Yale University.  Dr. 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). 

1.  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.

Furthermore, you 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 supervisor).  If 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 unused suggestions.)

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.

2.  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.  Why?  Because creative ideas cut against the grain of vested interests and old habits.  But in industrial R&D, only sensible risks will bring satisfactory returns.

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.

Taking sensible 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.

3.  Overcome obstacles, don't let them overcome you.

As mentioned 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.

Advancement in 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 top. 

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.

Unfortunately, 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 conventional wisdom.

4.  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 quick fix.

5.  Keep growing.  

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. 

6.  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 possibilities. 

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.

7.  Tolerate ambiguity. 

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 prematurely.  Nonetheless, 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, ambiguous search. 

8.  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 product. 

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. 

The principle 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.

9.  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. 

10.  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.

But sometimes, 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. 

We’ve mentioned 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 easy one. 

The one thing that is certain is that it’s a commitment worth making.

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