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Creativity and the Role of the Leader

Published on April 14, 2009

The Idea in Brief

In today’s innovation-driven economy, understanding how to generate great ideas is an urgent managerial priority. And that calls for major doses of creativity. But many leaders assume creativity is too elusive and intangible to be managed.

It’s true that you can’t manage creativity. But you can manage for creativity, say innovation leaders and experts who participated in a 2008 Harvard Business School colloquium. Among their recommendations for fostering the conditions in which creativity flourishes:

  • Stop thinking of yourself as the wellspring of ideas that employees execute. Instead, elicit and champion others’ ideas.
  • Open your organization to diverse perspectives–by getting people of different disciplines, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to share their thinking.
  • Know when to impose controls on the creative process (such as during the commercialization phase) and when not to (during early-idea generation).

The Idea in Practice

To enhance organizational creativity, consider these practices:

Tap Ideas from All Ranks

  • Elicit ideas from people throughout your organization. Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page tracked the progress of ideas that came from them versus ideas that bubbled up from the ranks–and discovered a higher success rate in the latter category.
  • Motivate people to contribute ideas by making it safe to fail. Stress that the goal is to experiment constantly, fail early and often — and learn as much as possible in the process. Convince people that they won’t be punished or humiliated if they speak up or make mistakes.
  • Further engage people by being an appreciative audience. Asking questions about a project and providing even a word of sincere recognition can be more motivating than money.

Open Your Company to Diverse Perspectives

Innovation is more likely when diverse people come together to solve a problem. Even within the mind of an individual, diversity enhances creativity. Individuals who have multiple social identities–for instance, Asian and American, female and engineer–display higher levels of creativity when problems require them to draw on their different realms of knowledge.

The lesson? Avoid suppressing parts of people’s identity. For example, craft a culture where female engineers can feel comfortable wearing feminine clothing.

Protect Creatives from Bureaucracy

As a fresh idea travels through an organization toward commercialization, powerful constituencies often beat it into a shape that conforms to the existing model. Protect those doing creative work from this hostile environment by clearing paths for them around obstacles.

Know When to Impose Controls–and When Not To

The early discovery phase of the creative process is inherently confusing and inefficient. So don’t impose efficiency-minded controls during that phase. Instead, apply them when the game has moved from discovery to reliability and commercialization.

Know which phase you’re in, and ensure that people with the right skills (such as ability to manage the handoff to the commercialization phase) are involved in the right stages.

Create a Filtering Mechanism

For every idea with real commercial promise, there are dozens that aren’t worth pursuing. How to winnow out the bad from the good? Have people from a variety of disciplines, functions, and viewpoints act as filters. Also consider using business “accelerators” (outside companies that test product ideas) to gauge their potential.

About the Authors

Teresa M. Amabile is the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School in Boston.

Mukti Khaire is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. The authors gratefully acknowledge the participants in the colloquium “Creativity, Entrepreneurship, and Organizations of the Future,” whose contributions form the substance of this article.

Copyright (c) 2008 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved

 

Filed under: Business, Creativity, Marketing

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