creativity and innovation

Joanna: 'There's this idea that you can only create great ideas in a free-form, unstructured environment. I don't believe that.'

In Creativity is Not Enough, Professor Ted Levitt (who later became editor of the Harvard Business Review and popularised the term 'globalisation') said interesting things about creativity and innovation:
It is alleged that everything in American business would be just dandy if
industry were simply more creative and if it would hire more creative people and
give them the chance to show their fructifying stuff.
It seems to me that the world would be a better place if more Harvard Professors used terms like 'fructifying stuff' and my fantasy is that, of the two terms, he'd rather be famous for that than globalisation.

Levitt goes on to explain his view that:

...there is really very little shortage of creativity and of creative people
in American business. The major problem is that so-called creative people often
(though certainly not always) pass off on others the responsibility for getting
down to brass tacks. They have plenty of ideas but little businesslike
follow-through. They do not make the right kind of effort to help their ideas
get a hearing and a try.

His point, clearly enough, is that ideation in businesses is relatively abundant. It is its implementation that is more scarce. Which brings us back to one of the conventional distinctions made by people who attempt to define innovation and creativity: namely that creativity is about having the idea, while innovation is about making it happen.

In this sense, Red Stripe had the perfect brief. It had not only to have the big idea or ideas, it had to 'pick one or more of these ideas to develop, and then bring the idea(s) to market'.

Another point made by Levitt in the same article, is that 'in most business organisations, the most continually creative men... are also generally known as corporate malcontents.' For whatever reason (Mike Seery says the team members were chosen 'for their flexibility, enthusiasm and to get a range of experience within the team'), the Red Stripe team members were far from corporate malcontents. Of course, they were not all unreserved admirers of their employer but, by and large, they liked and respected The Economist, were proud to work for it and determined to do well by it during the six months of the project. Perhaps, if the team really had been capable,
as Slashdot suggested, of frittering away the six months on drink and debauchery, then they might also have been even more receptive to even more revolutionary thinking:
In the first week, the staffers bought beer, wine, whisky, condoms, flat
screen televisions and gaming consoles.

In the second week, the staffers hired a young graphic artist through the internet for $35 per hour to set up a rudimentary web page asking for innovative ideas.

The next 5 months is a blur.

The final two weeks were a flurry of activities. So many good ideas to review! So little time!
By contrast, it was their respect for The Economist Group and concern not to do anything that might damage its reputation (or concern for their jobs, or conservatism, or pragmatism... call it what you like) that led them to back off from their brief at times. When they could have gone public with the Lughenjo idea and effectively forced the hand of The Economist Group (who would not have wanted to be seen ditching an admirably philanthropic scheme), they deliberately chose to stay silent and seek approval from the GMC first.

Staying with Ted Levitt, he further noted:

There is some evidence that the relatively rigid organisation can build into
its own structure certain flexibilities which would provide an organisational
home for the creative but irresponsible individual. What may be required,
especially in the large organisation, is not so much a suggestion box scheme as
a specialised group whose function is to receive ideas, work them out, and
follow them through in the necessary manner.
One of the bravest decisions that Project Red Stripe took in its early days was to abandon the great ideas that most of its members had brought with them and, in some cases, which they had worked up into virtual business plans in order to get accepted onto the team. (Joanna didn't have an idea at the outset and, as a result, felt somewhat split off from those who were 'awash with them'.) After presenting their ideas to each other on a cold day in Regent's Park, the team set about finding ways to harvest ideas from Economist readers and other interested parties. In using this crowdsourcing approach, they defied James Surowiecki, the granddaddy of crowd stuff, who claims - in the words of Dave Pollard - that 'despite compelling evidence that executives and experts are poor at making decisions, and that the collective wisdom of large numbers of people is very much better at it, few businesses rigorously canvass their employees and customers for anything more than inconsequential assessments after the decisions have already been made.'

For the first few weeks they simply worked on developing a workable scheme for collecting, collating, sorting, classifying and evaluating these ideas.

As a result they put themselves at a stroke in exactly the position of the 'responsible' evaluation group rather than that of the 'irresponsible' creative individual.

One reason this was such a bold decision was that it effectively undermined one of the most significant 'glues' that the team started out with - the notion that they could come up with an idea that would change the face of business, or the world, or - at the very least - The Economist.

In doing so, they freed themselves temporarily from the clutch of the becoming-whale-of-an-idea.


If good ideas are relatively abundant but the ability to commercialise them is relatively scarce, it may be useful to focus on the latter. But, if you do that, you might end up missing out on the really good idea, which no-one has had yet.

The crowd will come up with good ideas but it may also be tainted by lowest-common-denominator thinking.

A less responsible (or more malcontent) bunch than the Project Red Stripe team might have pursued the idea of a philanthropy website and launched it in a blaze of publicity without approval from the GMC. The Economist Group would have got 'businesslike follow-through' but would also have got an innovation it didn't want.



Innovation depot: Chris Denbow


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