#397  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 4          April 1999

The Paradox of Creativity
by Cynthia Carlisle, MS, MBA, CPA

Ms. Carlisle is a consultant specializing in creativity, innovation and organization development. Phone 512-345-2082, www.ideagate.com, ideagate@aol.com

The edict comes down from on high and permeates the organization, “Go Forth and be Creative.”  Sound familiar?  In today’s fast-paced, techno-driven, competitive workplace, the need to be creative and innovative is a given.  No level of an organization is immune, and management is given the charge of setting an example.  But how?

Understanding the mindset that needs to be in place to encourage creativity is a good beginning.

Imagine a ladder where each step provides support and a base for the steps farther up the ladder.  Each step on the ladder is equally important to reaching the destination, but to get there you must begin with that first step.  


Begin your journey with the first step of openness--being willing to hear new ideas, try different approaches and consider various options.  Ideas and connections can come from many sources, and having an open attitude is imperative to creating a culture for creativity.  Openness can help establish a receptive and encouraging  environment for new ideas to blossom.

As organizations grow and bureaucracies take hold, attitudes can become more restrictive, causing openness to be more difficult to maintain.  For a wonderful and entertaining look at how to avoid being sucked into the life-squeezing bureaucracy, read Orbiting the Giant Hairball (Viking, New York, 1998) by Gordon MacKenzie. 


A searching, inquisitive mindset serves an organization well.  Looking beyond the obvious for other answers and other questions is a philosophy that nurtures creativity.  Not accepting status quo or an if- it’s-not-broke-don’t-fix-it approach, can result in a beneficial need to look further for a better fit, idea or understanding.

Most of us had the gift of an exciting, curious, and wondering nature as children.  As we become indoctrinated through the educational system and life, it becomes less comfortable to access what was such an integral part of us.  Surfing the internet may be a solitary sport, but it does unchain the shackles that have kept curiosity out of reach.  There is a childlike relish to wandering around in cyberspace and checking out anything and everything that interests you.    


Moving up the ladder, we encounter intuition, that oft-touted, but not well-defined attribute.  Honoring intuition empowers organizational creativity in a way that few things can.  Understanding that inexplicable innate hunches have value, speaks volume about commitment to the creative process.

Intuition is a talent that can be acquired, increased and honed.  Organizations and individuals that recognize the benefit of intuition have accomplished great things throughout history.  For instance, Einstein intuitively understood the power of his daydream and made the connection to the theory of relativity. Electronic industry giants like Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Ross Perot had visions that drove them to pursue their intuition.

Freedom to Make Mistakes

Allowing mistakes, individually and organizationally, is a philosophy that seems to fly in the face of quality, productivity and maybe even good sense.  It is by creating this reward that organizations grant employees permission to explore and learn.  Many great products, services and ideas were created from an initial mistake.  Certainly, scientists do not expect that every theory or experiment will work perfectly and sometimes they stumble across an answer they were not even pursuing.  Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin while he was looking for an effective antiseptic during World War I.  He found it in a discarded petri dish that he was about to clean.

Corporate cultures often support striving for perfection without understanding that the perfect model, idea, symbol, etc. comes through a process of trial and error and, yes, lots of mistakes.  The mental model many employees walk around with is “I cannot try that.”  They build their own restrictions, thinking that their organization wants perfection.

Willingness to Take Risks

The willingness to take risks is truly one step beyond providing the freedom to make mistakes.  Risk- taking feels uncomfortable before, during and often after it takes place.  It requires moving out of the comfort zone and is strongly supported by openness, curiosity, and intuition.  Taking risks requires an inner faith and trust and a willingness to win or lose.

The common feeling that risk taking is a go-for-broke--all-or-nothing kind of thing is not always the case.  Certainly the stakes can be high, but so is the price of complacency.  Many corporate leaders of companies struggling today thought they had the answer and could just keep on with the same product, philosophy or culture.  They were unwilling to venture into the new untested waters.  The result is that they have become outpaced, outmaneuvered and outdated.


The ability to bend, change and react to new information, situations and ideas is instrumental in moving creativity through the process.  It can mean everything from making incremental changes to throwing something out and starting afresh.  It is a commitment to honoring all that preceded it, i.e., being open and curious, respecting intuition, allowing mistakes (even at the end), and being willing to take risks all along the way.

No matter where you are in the process, the need to be flexible is essential.  Making last-minute modifications, updates, upgrades or scrapping a project altogether are all characteristic of a flexible approach.  Flexibility is about listening and being responsive--to your clients, employees, the marketplace and yourself.


Having the resolve to stay with an idea, product or process through the tough times is the kind of determination needed to sustain creativity.  The difficulty in moving something forward once created can be an equally challenging prospect.

Very few great successes got there in their first try; instead, they stayed with it and pursued their ideas and dreams.  To really create requires that dogged determination to keep with it until it is complete in whatever form it may take. The creator of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Dr. David Damadian, struggled through the process making numerous mistakes and running into what often seemed like insurmountable obstacles along the way.  He stayed with it through all the challenges until he got what he wanted--a better tool for diagnosis.

The Paradox

An environment that supports and encourages creativity is paradoxical.  It is flexible on one issue and determined on another…it is open and curious and still willing to honor unexplained hunches…it gives permission to make mistakes and does not expect everyone to always operate in the comfort zone.  It is this paradox that grows and nurtures the creative process. 

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