No creativity, no innovation







Last summer I heard from a middle manager who seemed hopefully optimistic about a new innovation initiative at his company. He was excited about the high level of autonomy he and members of his team were being promised to develop new products and services, and he wanted to discuss ideas about managing in a suddenly less restrictive environment.

When we spoke a few days later, the enthusiasm had been replaced by frustration after senior executives followed up with multiple caveats that the manager knew would stifle creativity among team members.

No creativity means no innovation.

Innovation is the new buzzword and all the rage in corporate America. But too many senior managers seem to believe they can force innovation by locking project teams in conference rooms with pizza and soft drinks for brainstorming sessions. What they usually end up with is people with heartburn.creativity and innovation

I remain a fan of brainstorming meetings, even though a number of top leadership and productivity experts have begun to question their value. I consider them most useful in developing implementation strategies for ideas that are already fully formed. But the truth is, they don’t tend to generate much that would make us say wow. When was the last time you heard of something truly groundbreaking or life-changing coming out of a brainstorming session?

Innovation happens when people – and the teams on which they work – are given the time, the freedom and the support for their minds to wander into the realm of structured play. Too many senior managers can’t imagine such a lack of discipline. Nor can they conceive of so much individual and team autonomy. Their need to maintain control and structure, and to heavy-handedly manage corporate culture, inevitably crushes creativity and, along with it, innovation.

Not much more than six months after I first spoke with that middle manager, the new innovation initiative had already failed (as most do) and it has since been all but forgotten.

Some people erroneously equate creativity and innovation. While they are inextricably linked, they are not the same thing. Another common fallacy is that creativity is a special talent reserved for a few special people, when in fact most of us are capable of being creative on some level in the right environment.

Creativity is the ability to conceptualize things that seem unrelated or out of the realm of possibility and to make sense of them, based on experience and ability. It is innovation that transforms these concepts into reality via new products, services and processes that make a difference in our lives every day.

There is ample research to show that even the smartest, most highly skilled people do not achieve ground-breaking results outside of environments that foster creative problem solving. Such environments encourage team members to be imaginative in overcoming obstacles and improving workflow, decision making and other practices throughout the organization.

Creativity has three main components:

  • Expertise, which includes technical skill as well as knowledge of processes and corporate culture.
  • Flexibility and encouragement for team leaders and members to seek unconventional solutions and take calculated risks. They must also be given the time to explore and develop the resulting ideas.
  • Motivation, with intrinsic motivation more important than extrinsic motivation. While high performers need to be properly rewarded, senior managers must understand what gives them a sense of personal accomplishment and satisfaction, and tap into that.

Many companies have gotten out of the business of helping employees develop expertise through training and development, seeing only upfront costs as opposed to long-term investment. They see flexibility as downtime and unproductive. They often believe employees should be motivated just by drawing a paycheck. But senior executives who overlook or exclude these components, who impose too many rules or who manage processes too tightly undermine the ability of their teams to produce innovative products and services. No number of corporate-sponsored initiatives will ever change that and these efforts will continue to fail.


©2015 Robert Naylor Coaching and Consulting, LLC. All rights reserved

Robert Naylor is a journalist, journalism educator, consultant, certified coach, facilitator, and speaker who helps people become better leaders, improve workplace performance, and find focus in their careers and life. He is available for on-site training, private coaching, keynote presentations, and commentary. For more information visit naylorcoaching online or contact

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