With the proliferation of AI tools and their tremendous potential to improve productivity, leaders are reevaluating business priorities, and more specifically changes they need to make to work and culture. Given that AI can now handle many tasks better than humans, it stands to reason that creativity will take on an increasingly important role. It not only provides a sustainable competitive advantage but also improves employee engagement and organizational resilience.
Our understanding of creativity has evolved considerably over the last couple of decades. Despite the common perception that creativity is a fuzzy skill that you are either born with or not, we now know that creativity is a highly cognitive skill that can be tracked and improved. If companies want to get a better understanding of employee creativity and how it can be converted to meaningful innovation, they first need to assess their existing levels of creativity and how their culture might be inadvertently stifling innovation. Research has shown several different dimensions at varying organizational levels impact creativity and innovation.
The Innovation Pipeline
At the heart of any disruptive innovation is a creative idea. The creative idea often starts small and over time, with iterations and feedback, becomes a breakthrough one. The 4-C model captures the level of creativity found in the real world starting with mini-c all the way to the boundary pushing Big-C. In an organizational setting, it makes more sense to view it in three phases (little-c, Pro-c and Big-c) as mini-c creativity is associated with personally meaningful ideas whereas employees typically offer ideas that are creative in broader contexts.
The picture above shows a simplified view of the organizational innovation pipeline. (As a side note, we refer to innovation as gathering broad support among the management/company to take an idea to market, as opposed to market success which is the more common definition. We believe that within an organizational setting our definition is more appropriate).
The creative journey starts with one person who conceives the idea, does some simple checks and determines that the idea has potential (in other words, it is both novel and useful). She then shares the idea with her team who debate the idea in more depth and through constructive discussions improve the idea even more – finding ways to make the idea more appealing to a broader set of people, or finding solutions to remove some of the challenges in the original idea. The team then decides to build a prototype to test out the idea further with real people. So from little-c, the idea moves on to Pro-c. Finally, the idea gets buyoff from management who allocate additional resources to make the idea launch ready. There might be more in-depth user level testing and additional iterations involved at this stage. Eventually the creative idea transitions into an innovative one that has a high chance of success in the marketplace if the right processes and checks were in place. At each stage of progression, the creative idea becomes more sophisticated and more potent, finally culminating in a (hopefully) breakthrough innovation.
The fundamental challenge organizations have is to ensure that the pipeline allows ideas to flow freely and mature, so enough of them make it to the innovation stage. This is where deliberately building an innovation-friendly culture becomes essential.
How Culture Impacts Innovation
An organization’s culture can either nurture or stifle innovation. To understand different ways that innovation gets affected in an organization, let’s look at it from the perspective of an idea as it makes its way through the innovation pipeline.
A creative idea starts with a person who perhaps notices a problem or finds an interesting connection. If a sufficient number of ideas are not being generated at the beginning of the funnel, then the likelihood of reaching a breakthrough idea becomes low. Here are a few ways that ideas don’t go past the first stage:
- Creative Capacity: If someone lacks creative confidence or specific creative thinking skills they might be coming up with few or minimally creative ones. Or, they might not be getting any time in their schedule to reflect and think creatively. Either way, their capacity to produce creative ideas is diminished.
- Motivation to share ideas: Assuming that people are capable of coming up with potentially creative ideas, the next barrier we hit is sharing ideas. People are less inclined to share an original idea if they feel the idea might be ignored or judged poorly, thereby affecting their social standing. Or people might simply not want to share their ideas, if they feel that they don’t get due credit for their work. In general, organizations that are hierarchical, risk averse or biased, disincentivize people from sharing their ideas.
Most people assume that psychological safety is the main thing you need at a team level to allow good ideas to emerge. While this is a necessary first step, it’s not sufficient. For an idea to grow from little-c to a more improved Pro-c version, it needs to go through some extensive discussion. The main benefit of taking an idea to a group is that different perspectives and different ideas clash in a meaningful way to create something much more powerful. This crucial step separates mediocre teams from stellar ones as it requires both high cognitive and high emotional skills from the whole team. When done poorly, ideas can zoom past straight to innovation where they then face a higher chance of failure. Below are two broad ways teams fail at this stage:
- Critiquing Instead Of Creating: The most common mistake that people make is to focus on fault-finding, with the intent of choosing the “best” idea instead of trying to create the best possible version of each incoming idea. People might also lack skills to engage in constructive debates and end up creating either a conflict-averse culture or a highly competitive one where ideas don’t get a chance to grow.
- Not Experimenting: Simply talking is usually not enough for an idea to be evaluated thoroughly. Data collected through prototypes or mini-experiments can lead to more healthy debates. Cultures that incentivize bold, visionary thinking without the rigor of research or experimentation create conditions (“pipe dream” culture) where people chase shiny ideas that often turn out to be riddled with insurmountable problems.
At the highest level leaders need to create structures and behavioral norms to support innovation throughout the organization. Without adequate support, it’s nearly impossible to convert employee creativity into organizational innovation.
- Formal Structures: To take incoming Pro-c ideas to market-ready innovations, organizations need to have formal programs that systematically and equitably review all incoming ideas. Many companies create hackathon-like programs as avenues for employees to exercise their creativity but such programs fail to produce any meaningful innovation as they are not integrated into the regular work process. Companies also fail to create formal incentive programs specifically for creativity that tap into people’s intrinsic motivation.
- Behavioral Norms: Company leaders play a crucial role in setting norms that promote an innovation-friendly culture. Do they explicitly solicit ideas from employees? Do they encourage their employees to challenge the status quo? Do they involve their employees in setting vision and values? Such behaviors create a more egalitarian culture that motivates employees to go above and beyond.
Innovation Readiness Assessment
With the increasing importance of creativity and innovation in the business world, leaders need to understand in what ways their current culture supports or stifles innovation. Our Innovation Readiness Assessment is a research-based tool that helps identify bottlenecks in the innovation pipeline. It incorporates multiple dimensions that are known to impact creativity including work characteristics and biases, and covers all stages of the innovation pipeline.
Edgar Schein, the renowned organizational psychologist and author of Organizational Culture and Leadership, noted “the only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” By staying vigilant about how their culture influences innovation, leaders can ensure their company’s long-term success in a hyper competitive world.