Creativity, Innovation & the Operational Excellence Paradox
Dr. Pete Hammett, Visiting Professor
Does being mindful make people more creative at work? The role of creative process engagement and perceived leader humility
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
Creativity and innovation may sound synonymous, but there is a subtle yet noteworthy distinction between the two. Creativity centers on ideation — that is, the process and dynamics associated with generating ideas. Innovation on the other hand is the practical application of creative outcomes to form productive results. An example that highlights the distinction between creativity and innovation can be found in the way the United States Navy greatly improved their performance by borrowing a creative idea from the British.
At the turn of the 1800s, naval gunnery accuracy rates were abysmal, averaging less than two percent (meaning of 9,500 shots fired, less than 130 hit their intended target). However, a creative British admiral, Percy Scott, had developed an ingenious method of elevated gears and telescopic sightings that allowed gunners to continually adjust fire to account for the rolling of the ship. The result was a remarkable increase in gunfire accuracy. However, Admiral Scott was more interested in creative endeavors than product development and was content with simply outfitting his own ship rather than the entire British Navy. Admiral Scott was however inclined to share his ideas with others, including a young U.S. Naval Officer, Lt. Sims. What Lt. Sims lacked in creativity, he more than made up for in innovative thinking and tenacity. Over the course of many months and bureaucratic roadblocks, Lt. Sims eventually convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to take up the idea of continuous aim gunfire, thereby increasing the accuracy of U.S. Naval warships by 3,000 percent.
In understanding the distinction between creativity and innovation, we can begin to frame an interesting paradox that organizations must face. To build sustainable success, organizations need to run two concurrent strategies:
- Build and maintain operational efficiencies that will allow margins for investments, but…
- Sustain continuous innovation through productive implementation of creative energies.
These competing demands of being operationally efficient while fostering creativity and innovation at the same time bring about a perplexing paradox:
For an innovative organization to thrive competitively, it must build infrastructure and processes to facilitate the delivery of goods and services at a compelling value, and…
An organization that is able to provide goods and services at a compelling value will stagnate and die unless it is able to harvest and exploit its creative and innovative energies.
However, for innovative organizations that build standard, repeatable processes to deliver goods and services at a compelling value, these operational processes often constrain the very creative energies that lead to the organization’s success. The converse is true for organizations that have efficiently streamlined their operations to provide remarkable price points, but in the end are overtaken by competitors with a new and innovative offering.
The paradox for leaders is to balance the competing promises and demands inherent in creative/innovative ideas to capture new markets and operational excellence to ensure delivery of compelling value. Thus, the point can be made that while creativity within leaders is helpful, leaders need to focus their own creativity and that of their teams toward practical and beneficial results for innovation to occur within an organization.
Within this delicate balancing act, leaders need to be ever-diligent to develop and carry out operational processes that ensure value entitlement — where customers are entitled to receive quality goods and services at compelling prices and producers are entitled to realize quality margins and sustainable growth. To explore this leadership challenge, let us first examine insights from the creative process itself, namely how to foster greater creativity in the workplace.
Mindfulness and Humility as Catalysts for Creativity
In the paper “Does mindfulness make people more creative at work?”, researchers set out to investigate the impact of two factors on the creative process: (a) the conditional indirect effect of mindfulness on the creative process, and (b) how the perception of leader humility moderates the creative process.
What is Mindfulness?
There is a great deal of interest on the concept of mindfulness, but it seems there is often confusion on what is meant by the term “mindful”. The authors of the above mentioned paper draw heavily on the Eastern/Buddhist concept of mindfulness as contemplation or meditation. While this is indeed accurate, it is limiting. In my opinion, we are in need of a broader definition. Finding the right definition for mindfulness reminds me of the Mark Twain quote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” So, I’ll offer a simple yet broad definition: mindfulness occurs when we are intensely focused on a task, topic or engagement. A few examples may be helpful.
The U.S. Military has adopted a mindfulness approach during live-fire exercises. This is not to say you’ll see military personal meditating before taking their weapons on range. Rather, military personnel are trained to intentionally and intensely focus on the task at hand, namely pointing the muzzle end of their weapon in the direction they want to fire. When someone’s action reflects a lack of attention, the question instructors ask (very sternly and with great animation) is, “What are you thinking right now?” or “Where is your head?”.
In an Olympic medal round shotgun competition, contestants were challenged with a light but steady rain. Many of the contestants found the rain an unwelcome distraction, but the gold medalist of the event noted that the steady rain forced them to fix their attention on the task at hand and actually aided in their winning performance.
Finally, there is the concept of collective mindfulness. I witnessed this firsthand in the energy field when crews were deployed to address very technical and markedly dangerous problems. Before each work effort, crews would perform what is called a tailboard review. They circle around the tailboard of the pickup truck and review the technical aspects of the job, as well as the potential safety concerns. This tailboard exercise created a collective mindfulness for the crew so they kept and maintained an intense focus on the technical and safety aspects of the work order.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Researchers of this article suggest mindfulness’ impact on creativity is principally to clear one’s mind and become open to creative/out-of-the-box ideas. There are pros and cons to out-of-the-box thinking, but I am hard pressed to make a connection to mindfulness as an enabler (see authors’ conclusions and recommendations below).
More pragmatic for me is the notion that the best ideas are those that are out-of-the-box. Personally, I feel the ‘box’ has gotten a bad reputation. This became evident when a colleague shared their experience providing leadership coaching with a well-known Hollywood movie studio. My friend was invited to observe an executive meeting between the president of the studio and the executives responsible for the movie-making magic. The issue was the consistent cost overruns on Blockbuster movies.
While the movies were a tremendous success at the box office, profits were significantly impacted by runaway production costs. At one point in the discussion, the moviemakers defended their actions by saying, “If you want a Blockbuster movie, you need to have a Blockbuster budget.” Then, as if out of a scene from one of their movies, the president stood up and began to walk out of the room. He stopped, faced the moviemakers and replied, “Any ordinary producer can make a good movie by spending their way to the box office. It takes a real genius producer to make a Blockbuster movie within budget.” As he turned and walked toward the conference room door, the president paused again and added, “Prove to me what kind of (expletive deleted) geniuses you are.” See, the box can be your friend!
The Role of Leader Humility in Creativity
The researchers offer valuable insight into the impact of leadership in the creative process. Specifically, the authors point out that those with a humble approach to leading are more apt to be open in learning from others, and thus, more receptive to the creative ideas of others. Here again, while the authors correctly connect the positive impact of humble leaders, their field of view is limited. A more thorough lens on humility is reflected in Jim Collins’ work found in Good to Great. Here, Collins identifies a Level 5 leader as someone who builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will, putting the interests of others ahead of their own. This contrasts with what I call a Level 5 Asshat: a leader who exhibits a predictable pattern of callous, manipulative, arrogant and self-absorbed behavior from which a toxic and harmful workplace environment emerges.
Perhaps the most powerful impact of a humble leader on the creative process is that they understand and accept that failure is a natural occurrence in the creative process. Creativity and innovation are a messy process. People hold different views on what initiatives to pursue and how to pursue them. For example, there are always more ideas than capital. There needs to be a clearly defined process for evaluating, selecting and advancing ideas that show the most promise. That said, creativity and innovation don’t often fit into the tidy process in most company’s evaluation process. Ideas are identified that often need swift action to be first-to-market, which doesn’t always lend itself the careful consideration and weighing of funding alternatives. Ideas do not always present themselves at the same time to allow comparisons and selection of the best idea. Sometimes, decisions need to be made without knowing all of the information typically provided for business decision making.
Let me share a real-life example. I headed the technology team at American Express and was charged with streamlining the process for replacing lost cards. An interesting fact…when people lose their credit card, more often than not, it’s because they’ve lost their wallet. Over time, Amex has developed a variety of cards to meet various financial/business needs. So, when a person needs to replace an Amex card, odds are good they have multiple cards to replace.
Before my team received the card replacement project, another team on the other side of the country had taken on the effort. Their approach was sound, but their execution missed a few key considerations and the project failed. Those on the first team received unwarranted criticism and the team eventually disbanded. Our team took the assignment to try again with understandable hesitations. However, our boss sat us down and told us they had our back. It was okay to make mistakes along the journey of pulling this off, because we would figure it out and make it happen.
Our team was bolstered, and we took on the effort wholeheartedly. And I did make mistakes along the way. In the beginning, I burned through a quarter million of our budget before realizing we were on the wrong track, but I acknowledged my mistake to my boss and the funding executives and shared what I had learned and how I would use the new insights going forward. At the end of the day, the team came up with a remarkably creative and innovative approach, and our implementation was one of the most successful that year. I can tell you with great certainty that had I not felt my boss had my back so I could try ideas, fail, learn and move forward, I would have passed on the assignment.
Recall that the researchers of the paper “Does mindfulness make people more creative at work?” set out to investigate the impact of two factors on the creative process: (a) the conditional indirect effect of mindfulness on the creative process, and (b) how the perception of leader humility moderates the creative process. Based on their research, the authors offered the following conclusions.
“In our view, the association between mindfulness and creative process engagement is very interesting but not straightforward. On the one hand, mindfulness rooted in the Eastern Buddhist tradition does not involve cognitive thinking, but rather attention to present-moment stimuli. On the other hand, creative process engagement is about creative endeavors (problem identification, information searching and encoding, and idea generation) that an employee typically engages in to achieve creative performance. It is not obvious that these two can be connected.”
What I believe the researchers are saying is, “It seems intuitive that there is a connection between mindfulness and creativity, but we cannot definitively make this assertion from our research.” I find the researchers’ frankness to be refreshing.
“We adopted a humanistic view of leadership and theorized that perceived leader humility encourages employees to disclose and try out their creative ideas. Our findings that mindfulness plays a stronger role in affecting employee creativity (via creative process engagement) when a leader expresses humbleness to their subordinates and that the role of mindfulness becomes negligible when the leader acts arrogantly open up a research avenue on the role of context in mindfulness theory in explaining when the benefits of mindfulness are likely to manifest in creative performance.”
If I were to summarize the researchers’ point on humble leaders’ impact on creativity, it would be: “Humble leaders are better leaders. Thereby, they have a more positive influence on creativity, and arrogant leaders have a negative impact on creativity.” While this isn’t a new revelation (this insight has been documented in countless studies), validation is always helpful.
The authors suggested two takeaways for organizations:
- Organizations that desire employee creativity may consider incorporating mindfulness as a selection criterion for jobs that require creative problem solving since mindful candidates are likely to engage more in the creative process and achieve greater creative performance.This is a less than helpful suggestion, especially in Western businesses, as mindfulness is not a qualified criterion for selection, and I would anticipate no small legal issue around adverse impact from its usage in the hiring process. Honestly, I would not look to screen/select candidates based on any measure of creativity. Rather, I would draw on proven and demonstrated creativity and innovation in prior experiences and background.
- Organizations need to encourage or develop the humility of their managers. For example, organizations could encourage managers to practice humility.
I find this a bit naive and shortsighted, but in deference to the researchers, it may be that they’ve not had hands-on practical business experience in leadership development.
Closing Thoughts on Creativity and Innovation
It is clear that organizations need to balance the paradox that exists between creativity, innovation and operational excellence. To make creativity sustainable, organizations must emphasize that creativity is important. However, the type of creativity that emerges within an organization is contingent not only on the leadership, but environment and environments that grant degrees of freedom and autonomy in the creative process as well. To this, organizations may consider the following axioms.
Creativity vs. Innovation
While creative people are important to have around, for innovation to occur within an organization, leaders need to be able to harness the creativity within themselves and their teams in order to direct practical, beneficial results. This gives way to the first axiom of creativity vs. innovation:
Axiom #1: Creativity is influenced by environment. Innovation is influenced by leadership.
The Tyranny of Success
In some regards, an organization’s success can become its own worst enemy as successful organizations often become entranced with their own press. In the end, an organization can become ensnared in the inertia that occurs when companies grow and expand. As long as there is no gap between expectations and performance, a successful system will actively attempt to remain stable. Drawing from the laws of motion, we can reflect on how organizational inertia might be influenced by creativity and innovation. For example, an organization at rest (e.g. stagnate) will stay at rest until acted upon by the force of creativity. Once set in motion, the directional focus of the organization will be influenced by innovative energies.
For example, let’s assume that organizational inertia conforms to physical laws of motion — that is, a body at rest (an organization) will stay at rest until acted upon by an equal or greater force, and a body in motion (an organization) will likewise stay in motion until acted upon by an equal or greater force. Likewise, an organization in motion (e.g. engaged in focused direction) will stay in motion until redirected by creative energies. In this analogy we are able to craft our second axiom of creativity vs. innovation:
Axiom #2: Creativity sets an organization in motion. Innovation gives that motion focused direction.
Trust in Leaders vs. Trust in Organizations
In the early stages of an organization’s life, trust is typically embedded with the founder — someone whose vision and passion inspires people with creativity and innovation. However, as an organization matures, trust in founding leaders can be replaced with individual roles, responsibility and even procedures. Eventually, as an organization grows, its entrepreneurial spirit gives way to the need to standardize operations. During this phase of an organization’s life, confidence in a particular individual can be replaced with trust with the company. The result is that the organization experiences fewer creative solutions and less innovative breakthroughs that had once come from an environment where people trusted their leaders and affirmed individual confidence in their competency. In its place, organizations often instill strong institutional processes and procedures characterized by clever problem solving. From this, we frame our third axiom of creativity vs. innovation:
Axiom #3: Trust embodied in a leader influences innovative breakthroughs. Trust embodied in an organization will, at best, foster clever problem solving.
Reward and Recognition
If we look at creativity and innovation as critical resources for organizational success, the natural question emerges: “How do we make creativity and innovation happen?” In attempting to answer this question, much research has focused on studying the impact of extrinsic rewards on creativity. For example, research has shown that the effects of monetary incentives and recognition on creativity are not uniform across different jobs and employees. We do know that the way jobs are structured influences creativity. Specifically, individuals in complex jobs, by definition, require greater cognitive skills, and therefore, typically don’t see gains in creativity/innovation from extrinsic rewards and recognition. On the flip side, individuals in less complex jobs requiring less cognitive skills will see positive results from reward and recognition programs. We also understand that people are drawn toward environments where creativity (and perhaps their individual contributions) are recognized, supported and valued.
While there are a number of theories that attempt to explain why reward structures generate differing results as they relate to creative outcomes, it is clear that when it comes to reward and recognition, one size does not fit all. However, more pragmatically, we may need to consider that distinct forces are at play that influence a person’s creative energies versus someone’s innovative thinking.
This might help explain why reward structures that attempt to influence creativity are hit or miss at best. Perhaps this is because creativity is closely tied to a person’s passion, heart and spirit. This may also explain why the most compelling creative outcomes are inspired. It would be interesting to critique creative outcomes done for hire versus outcomes generated from inspiration.
In contrast, innovative thinking may be more influenced by extrinsic motivators. Anecdotally, we see evidence of this when organizations provide incentives for quality improvement ideas. In considering the distinction in how we might generate creativity vs. innovation, we uncover the fourth axiom:
Axiom #4: The best creative outcomes are those that are inspired. The best innovative thinking can be facilitated with compelling incentives.