seeding ideas

Project Management and Product Development Book Reviews

Creativity, Inc.: Building an Inventive Organization

Jeff Mauzy and Richard Harriman (Harvard Business School Press, Boston; 2003; ISBN 1-57851-207-7) $27.50

Creativity is seen as the cure to many organizational ills, so enterprises continually seem to be striving for greater creativity. Scores of books have been written on the subject, and a search through the recently published ones turned up Creativity, Inc. as perhaps one of the best available today.

This book excels because it is based on years of practical experience in applying creativity techniques by a consultancy that has pioneered in this field. Synectics emerged in 1960 as a firm and as a book by the same name by William J. J. Gordon. In contrast with many competing books, Creativity, Inc. organizes this difficult-to-capture subject well and provides many examples and exercises to enable learning. In contrast to Synectics Corp., which specializes in enhancing creativity in a corporate setting, the book applies to any organization, profit-making or not.

Although creativity is most often associated with new products, Mauzy and Harriman emphasize systemic creativity, which expands to all departments and activities of an organization. They specifically address creativity, not innovation. The former concerns coming up with a novel and useful idea, whereas innovation means following through on this idea until it provides benefit, or as the authors put it, “changes the order of things.”

The authors are clear on why creativity is difficult and rare in the organizational world. It does not fit easily with the sacred cows of efficiency, hierarchy, or emphasis on mission and goals, and it is continuously undermined by imitation (benchmarking, for example), conformity, the need to be right, and fixed organizational roles.

According to Creativity, Inc., the following four dynamics underlie all creative efforts:

  • Motivation must be intrinsic. When a person is extrinsically motivated, it is too easy to provide an idea that is not very creative in order to obtain a reward that may be offered. Thus, paying for creativity is generally ineffective.
  • Curiosity and fear are an interesting duo. Creativity naturally stems from curiosity, and new things naturally lead one into the unknown. Entering unknown territory often instills fear, and fear encourages us to back out of the unknown. Consequently, fear must be appreciated and mitigated in order to move forward with novel thoughts or actions.
  • Breaking and making connections is perhaps the heart of the Synectics methodology. Through repetition, our brains build strong pathways along which messages travel under certain circumstances. We call these habits or skills, but they stand in the way of change. Thus, the brain needs to be rewired, and tacit assumptions need to be identified and challenged. On the constructive side, the authors suggest a multitude of ways that one can make associations from far-flung areas. For example, how does the picture on a certain page of a magazine suggest that you might solve your problem? In this case, a well-chosen picture moves a person to a new space or viewpoint with regard to the problem at hand and breaks the normal connections that they have used with the problem in the past.
  • Evaluation is a balancing act—balancing fear with curiosity, diligence with patience, and overcoming the weaknesses in an idea without being negative about the idea.

This book starts by explaining creativity on an individual level and then moves on to the organizational level. At the individual level, the authors suggest using “purposeful confusion” to break and then remake connections. Usually, the old connection is broken before the new one is made, and confusion reigns in the interim. To eventually make the best connection, stay with the confusion, learn how to say “I don’t know,” and become comfortable with intense and long-lasting ambiguity.

Similarly, there is a strong tendency to rush to judgment in evaluation. The best ideas are usually not the first ones to arise but instead come from creative combinations of other ideas that initially seem to have less merit. Keep your connections from solidifying too soon. This is where high-quality creativity takes time. Managers often are unwilling to spend the necessary time seeking creative solutions, However, research described in the August 2002 Harvard Business Review (“Creativity Under the Gun”) concludes that, with rare exceptions, time pressure inhibits creativity.

At the organizational level, the dynamic of breaking and making connections relates to the way in which the organization endorses the four challenges of conflict, risk-taking, diversity, and intrinsic motivation. Conflict between individuals in values, working styles, or objectives, the authors say, “is a rich yet tricky vein to mine.” It is a potent tool for breaking connections, but at the same time, it can raise fear, lower motivation, curtail connection-making, and distort evaluation. Risk-taking is related to time pressure; those uncomfortable with risk will sacrifice creativity just to minimize their anxiety. Diversity of the individuals involved is another factor that adds discomfort but results in more creative solutions.

Mauzy and Harriman use the term climate as a subset of the more commonly used term, culture. Climate refers to the collection of mutually reinforcing behaviors and expectations in an organization. Climates that nurture creativity emphasize individuality and the fourth challenge, intrinsic motivation; they offer the safety needed for creativity to flourish; and they provide the time needed for effective evaluation. Changes in these qualities require prolonged effort. Moreover, without ongoing attention, improvements will disappear over time. Similarly, a small, creative organization acquired by a larger command-and-control one is likely to lose its creative climate.

Clearly, a creative climate will enhance creativity whenever it is needed, from fixing a paper-supply problem to inventing a new product line. The authors devote an excellent chapter to “purposeful creativity” and describe in detail a seven-step process that includes applicable tools and three running examples—one from Nabisco, one from Citibank, and one from an individual at Boston’s Museum of Science. Here are a few learnings I gleaned from this chapter:

  • Some of the most powerful tools for making connections involve “excursions,” such as analogies and metaphors. These tools are effective because they place a person in a new world that is seemingly irrelevant to the world of the problem and also devoid of typical constraints in the normal world, thus relaxing fear and increasing curiosity.
  • When selecting a solution, the most practical one will normally receive the most votes. To move beyond this roadblock, someone with greater tolerance for risk must open some other solution options and encourage their exploration.
  • Explore solutions one at a time, each one with maximum creative effort. Again, this takes more time but is likely to result in a more creative final solution.
  • Don’t group solutions into categories. This homogenizes them and dissipates much of their individual creativity. It also tends to render them ownerless, which impairs implementation.
  • As you develop a solution, list its benefits first, which lowers your defenses so that you can work on its potential.
  • Pursue flaws in ideas forgivingly as difficulties to be resolved. For instance, rather than saying, “This is too expensive,” say, “How could we lower its price?”

The authors conclude with a short chapter on sustaining creativity although the essentials and difficulties are amply provided in earlier chapters. The closing material also includes plenty of notes, a long bibliography, and a good index.

Ironically, for a book on creativity, this one uses remarkably little creativity in presenting material on the printed page. There are no figures, tables, sidebars, or other relief from the ongoing text. This material lends itself to illustrations—for example, a chart of the tension between curiosity and fear, a road map of an excursion, or a cartoon on intrinsic motivation.

In summary Creativity, Inc. provides a clear and well-tested approach to improving organizational creativity that can be used by managers and consultants alike. But it will require persistent effort over the years for these cultural changes to take root and bear fruit. Thus, it puts the subject on a realistic but doable foundation.

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(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.