Creativity & Innovation: How Critical Are They?

Innovation often is defined narrowly as invention… creating something that has never been. But there are other forms of innovation. I can improve existing technology or products and gain a competitive advantage. Or I can integrate features that already exist but have not yet been combined into a single device. Jobs led the creation of the iPhone and just about everyone would credit him with innovation.

  • But was it in the form of invention, improvement or integration?
  • Was the magic of this product the ability to do so many things on one device?
  • Did it actually do something that could not have been done with any device at that time?
  • And did that really matter to potential customers since they could not do things they could not before?

Organizations increasingly recognize that talent is their most important asset. Although machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence can be used to solve problems or create a synthesis of existing things (features; ideas; devices) can the technology determine what will succeed in the marketplace? Although focus groups and other forms of marketing research can discover what people think they want history has shown that the answer is evident only after the product is in the end users hand being used. So if creative people are the key to innovation will the kind of innovation needed dictate the kind of creative people needed?

Talent management is all about attracting, retaining and motivating the people required to do what the organization needs done. If what is needed is invention what type of talent is needed? If improvement is required does that suggest a different type of talent? And when integration is the objective is yet another type of person required? One way to identify talent needs is to begin with the desired end result and work backwards.

In most for-profit private sector organizations the criteria used to evaluate organizational performance can be expressed using financial, operational and customer measures. Using an instrumentation dashboard based on a balanced scorecard approach the organization can create a report card to evaluate success. So if an investment is made in research and development with the objective of creating an easier way to control software that would appeal to a broad consumer market, resulting in a large revenue stream, each R&D proposal can be evaluated by projecting its success in achieving that result. PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) did part of that job… several times they created (invented) new things. Yet because PARC was imbedded in Xerox and the broader organization was unable to commercialize any of the innovations, they ended up giving them away. Looking back on this failure what could the organization have done to produce a better result?

No alt text provided for this image
If creative people are placed in a pure R&D setting and asked to invent new things they will be motivated to do so. But if invention is only part of what is required for meeting objectives should the talent pool also include creative people who know how to take an invention to market? The Xerox/PARC case is not the only example of invention not leading to success. GM could not learn from NUMI or from Saturn, two successful innovations in the auto industry. How can sophisticated organizations not recognize the value of something that can lead to a competitive advantage?

Creativity and innovation are the keys to success in today’s competitive environment. But that is not to discount the value of being able to execute existing strategies well. Being able to reliably execute an operational excellence strategy may not be accepted as creative by some. Walmart is not often used as an example of an innovative organization. But competing based on price can be the key to success for many organizations. And putting together a well-functioning global logistics chain that is cost-effective can require a lot of creativity, even though it is more of the improvement and integration type. An operational excellence approach to competing needs a different talent management strategy than a product innovation or a customer intimacy approach. People are wanted who loath waste, drive out variation in processes and execute reliably.

A product innovation approach focuses more on invention, although improvement and integration may also be required. And this type of competitive strategy needs people with different characteristics than those fitting an operational excellence strategy. So GM and Xerox probably would have realized value from their experiments if they had identified all the types of creativity required and ensured the talent pool contained people who could provide it all. Their staffing, development, performance management and rewards management strategies could have been customized to attract, retain and motivate a broad range of talent. And the organizational culture could have been evaluated to determine whether it provided a context within which the full range of talent could have peacefully co-existed. A culture can be adopted that embraces sub-cultures, which enables local variation to provide the context required. Doing the same things in the same way for all products everywhere in the world may not be the path to success. Fundamental beliefs and values can be the same throughout the organization but what is valued and rewarded can vary when it is necessary to ask for different forms of innovation from different units and different people. Xerox and GM might have benefitted from their experiments had that been their approach.

So it is incumbent on organizations to identify how much and what type of creativity is required. It may be necessary to have some people inventing, others improving and others integrating. Selecting the right people with the right skills and focusing them on doing the things required to effectively execute the strategy is a universal requirement.