Keys To Creativity

Over at Harvard Business Review blogs, a couple of author acquaintances, David Burkus and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, have blogged on the topic of creativity.

David Burkus, whose book The Myths of Creativity I enjoyed and interviewed him on, surprisingly ballyhooes Adobe’s “Kickbox” program.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, whose book Confidence I enjoyed and interviewed him on, surprisingly goes down a “do more” path.

In “Inside Adobe’s Innovation Kit,” David Burkus describes the kit:

The Kickbox is a small, red cardboard box containing everything an employee needs to generate, prototype, and test a new idea. According to Adobe, the Kickbox is “designed to increase innovator effectiveness, accelerate innovation velocity, and measurably improve innovation outcomes.” The top of the box features a clever fire alarm image with the words “Pull in Case of Idea” written on it. When you break open the seal, you’ll find instruction cards, a pen, two Post-It note pads, two notebooks, a Starbucks gift card, a bar of chocolate and (mostly importantly) a $1,000 prepaid credit card. The card can be used on anything the employee would like or need without ever having to justify it or fill out an expense report. The instructions inside the Kickbox take the form of a six-level curriculum that encourages employees to beat each level and “beat the box.” Each level contains exercises and a checklist. The exercises are designed to guide employees from ideation stages to a small-scale test of at least 100 users (the fifth level). The sixth level’s exercise is selling the idea to management.

In “You Can Teach Someone to Be More Creative,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic suggests several tactics: giving lots of feedback, providing training in creative thinking, assigning people tasks they love, helping employees develop expertise, balancing personality differences and similarities, and, (of course!) embracing failure.

While I admire and respect both individuals for their academic prowess and research capabilities, from a real-world perspective I find all this stuff wholly unnecessary.

My reason for saying this is that a company in dire need of creative juice has a deeply embedded cultural, and thus systemic, set of issues: the prevailing norms are designed for a different result, and it’s not creative ideas. It’s designed to minimize risk, enhance certainty, and ensure revenue growth and profitability.

And this much I know for a fact from two decades of frontline, practical continuous improvement effort: you will never change a system with a tactical approach. Not ever. I don’t care how great and talented an individual is, or how great your little tool sounds in a press release. Put that good person and tool in a bad system, or one intended for a different purpose, and the system will win. Every time. Because the system bats last.

A quick glance at your average education system in the U.S. tells the story. ALL of the things both authors describe, applaud and suggest are done. And the average educational system is truly great at one thing: wiring people to get the answer already known to be right, while diluting, nay, stifling, creativity.

Let’s think a tad deeper about the Adobe program. (And that’s what it is, a program in box.)

Would the Marines ever hand a recruit the military equivalent of an Adobe Kickbox: gun, ammo, boots, fatigues, and a little list of steps and instructions? Nope. They would spend months, though, instilling in them what it means to be Marine. They would spend months defining the work of the Marine, and the role the individual plays in carrying out that work. They would spend months strengthening the recruit’s body, mind, and soul. Then, and only then, would they put tools and tactics in their hands. Then, and only then, would the tools and tactics become effective in fighting the enemy. Because now they have meaning.

Now, the Adobe thing looks good at a superficial level. It looks like they truly care. I have no doubt they really want innovative ideas and an ethos of experimentation. But the net present value of these kinds of tools and programs? Zero. In fact, my bet is that they will do more long-term harm than good. Why?

Because when the program runs out of resource steam, and all the low-hanging fruit (aka easy-fix ideas that didn’t demand any deep degree of creativity in the first place) is picked clean, they’ll be faced with the more difficult problem of implementing ideas that don’t just get the company back to neutral, but that actually move it forward.

And no number of Kickboxes, and no degree of personality approaches, will help them.

I hope I’m wrong. I truly do. I’m hoping “their mileage may vary.” But if my practical experience across a wide swath of companies not unlike Adobe is any indication, I’m not.

The keys to the creative kingdom begin with three systemic changes:

  1. Clear and cascading goals, preferably tied to a dramatic destination which cannot be reached without new thinking. Done right, every single person in the company has no choice but to think of ways to learn, improve, and innovate, no matter how incrementally.

  2. Roles and responsibilities defined and designed not as doing a job, but improving the work. In other words, creativity and innovation ARE the job, and the quantity and quality of tested ideas is a big part of how job performance is systematically and regularly evaluated. Experimentation must be an integral part of every core work process, a “must do,” not a bolted-on “nice to do.” It’s got to be mandatory, and it’s got to become a habit.

  3. A disciplined (not programmatic) innovation methodology: common, principled approach that is understood and rigorously followed by everyone, paired with local autonomy. (The sanction to run an experiment need only come from the immediate next level up. A frontline employee needs a thumbs up from their immediate supervisor, not the CEO. It’s only an executive vice president who needs a thumbs up from the CEO. The flatter your organization, the better.)

It’s how Toyota turned around a dark and dismally performing GM plant in two years using the same union workers GM did. Over 9000 employee improvements were made in the first year, an average of 3 per employee, with nary an “innovation kit” handed out, and not a single instance of personality matching or “embrace failure” messaging.

It’s how to this day they implement over 1 million experiments each year worldwide, most from the front lines. It’s why they let people come watch what they do…by the time you implement a fraction of what you see, they’re a million more ideas down the road. It’s why they’re inside the top 20 (along with Tesla, which now inhabits the aforementioned factory) of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies.

Want real creativity? Stop paying for ideas, in any form. Think about removing the obstacles you’ve put in the way of innovative thinking up and down the line. And stop coddling people with smile training and personality-based kid gloves.

Mostly, you’ll need to focus on undoing what you now do, not doing more. You’ll need to break the current habit, and a starter kit won’t do that. (If it did, losing weight and stopping smoking wouldn’t be serious issues.)

You’ll need to get people back to how they entered the world in the first place: as natural born learners, curious about everything, using their imaginations to play seriously.

Don’t try to light a fire underneath people. Light the fire within people.

As former Raychem CEO Paul Cook said: “If you want innovation, you assemble a group of talented people who are eager to do new things and put them in an environment where innovation is expected. It’s that simple…and that hard.”

Finally, stop trying to avoid that last word…”hard.”