Absurd!: We Think We Want Creativity or Change, but We Really Don’t

by Ron Potter

Clients often ask me to come in and help them with their creativity. The market place is changing, new more nimble competitors are popping up. Their clients are asking for a more creative approach (although that is usually a code word for reducing prices). The leaders are asking every team to think and act more creatively.

However, my first words to the team under the creative pressure is that your leaders are using the word “creative” but they don’t really want that. They’ll resist your ideas every time. What they are really asking is to be more innovative. I’ll go into the difference of those words in a minute but it needs to be said here that the real need may indeed be creativity, it’s just that the leaders will still resist anything beyond innovation.

Creativity and Innovation: What’s the Difference?

I first learned about the difference between these words from Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in their book Execution. Creativity is blue sky, it’s outside the normal boundaries, it’s breaking the rules. Innovation is executing what you do well faster than the competition. Regardless of the words used, corporate leaders are usually (not always) looking for better, faster execution, not untried, unproven, rule-breaking creativity.

The “Problem” with Creativity

Our author Farson says “Creative ideas are relatively easy to elicit. To implement an idea is a tougher task. The fundamental problem with creativity is that every new idea requires the manager and the workforce to undergo significant change. Real creativity always violates the rules. That is why it is so unmanageable and that is why, in most organizations, when we say we desire creativity we really mean manageable creativity. We don’t mean raw, dramatic, radical creativity that requires us to change.”

I think manageable creativity is what Bossidy and Charan were talking about when they defined innovation. The challenge for all corporate leaders is to be clear about what is needed and what the team is being asked to accomplish. If it’s innovation, then clearly define what part of the system you’re trying to simplify and execute faster. If it’s true creativity, then the leaders must start thinking more creatively themselves. And creativity always requires letting go of control. That’s a tough one for corporate leaders.

History has shown us that true creativity usually happens in small autonomous groups. Think skunk works. Farson says “When a company wants to stimulate creativity, it may need to organize quite differently. Companies have learned that scale is the enemy of creativity and are finding ways to break into smaller more flexible units.”

Skunkworks require a great deal of risk tolerance. But the alternative may be fatal. If you truly need creativity to survive, take the risk.

This post is a continuation of my series on an in-depth look at a wonderful little book that’s twenty years old this year. The title is Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson. You may want to consider dropping back and reading the previous blog posts about ABSURD! I think it will put each new one in great context.

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