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Jennifer Riel is the associate director of the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
Jennifer Riel is the associate director of the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

LEADERSHIP LAB

Five ways to crush creativity at work Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

Creativity is a critical capability for organizations. Without it, companies can fail to innovate and slowly decline. Yet, all too often, instead of fostering creativity in ourselves and our teams, we inadvertently stifle it. How? By falling prey to five creativity-killing traps:

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We seek perfection

As leaders, we naturally seek the right answers. But if perfection is the goal of an innovation process, how do we possibly get started? No idea feels big enough, no path clear enough. Our desire for perfection stops us from sharing the seeds of ideas, small insights that might turn into something big down the line.

Instead of starting with perfection in mind, start with the simple but powerful idea that the purpose of innovation is to better meet our customers’ needs – and that all ideas, even those that seem small, are welcome. The key is to simply begin, to try to make progress on an innovation challenge. The ideal of perfection is both unattainable and unhelpful, so stop worrying about it.

We start with a blank sheet of paper

One of the worst things to happen to creative thinking in organizations was the idea that we should all “think outside the box.” Few things are more likely to produce creative paralysis than staring at blank sheet of paper, waiting for inspiration to strike. Great ideas needn’t spring fully formed from your mind, absent of all context and influence. Instead, use your context to help you generate ideas. Rather than starting from scratch, seek to make connections between existing but disparate ideas.

Procter & Gamble has become masterful at this approach. For most of its history, its research and development efforts were done in silos – separate teams conducted research into paper towels, skin-care, diapers and so on. But over the past decade, innovation teams have consciously sought to make connections across those silos. As a result, some of P&G’s most successful new products have emerged out of a combination of insights from different business units. Crest White Strips, for instance, leveraged technology from the paper products, home care and laundry businesses to make the teeth whitening product. Consider how you might leverage a similar approach in your organization.

We demand proof

The thing about new ideas, as Rotman School of Management Professor Roger Martin often points out, is that they are new. Which means there is very little existing data to prove, in advance, that they are a good idea. Yet, when someone proposes an innovative idea, we almost invariably ask them to prove that it will work. Since there is no existing proof, the idea dies on the spot; a desire for risk-free innovation kills it.

Instead of demanding proof at the outset, acknowledge that our job as leaders is to generate confidence in new ideas through exploration of the logic behind them and through smart experimentation. Rather than looking for definitive proof a new idea will work, seek to narrow your odds. Ask, as Mr. Martin does, what would have to be true for this to be a good idea. Then, run short experiments to generate the data you need to move ahead.

We hide new ideas

The world of business is a competitive place, and so we are naturally scared to expose our ideas too early. Unfortunately, this instinct to hide our ideas away from the market until launch increases the risk of failure and diminishes our ability to create effectively. Remember, innovation is about better meeting the needs of your customers – so the key to more effective innovation is to engage directly with those customers.

Companies like 3M, Intuit and BMW have successfully brought customers into their innovation processes, creating new centres, processes and structures designed to get early customer feedback on ideas and to explicitly generate new ideas on the basis of that feedback. Rather than exposing these firms to competitive threats, inviting customers into the innovation process builds trust, loyalty and strong results.

We punish failure

As David and Tim Kelley, co-founders of the design and innovation firm IDEO, note in their new book Creative Confidence, we all start out creative. As kids, we enthusiastically imagine, build and play, until it becomes clear that there is something at stake. As we begin to be evaluated and graded, creativity gets harder. We fail to create, because creativity brings with it the chance of failure, and failure is bad. It is dangerous to our ego and our livelihood.

Yet, we know failure is crucial to learning – the key to embracing failure is to build opportunities for failure, and revision, into the innovation process as early as possible. Build rough prototypes and get testing, rather than waiting late into the process. The earlier you fail, the more likely the causes of failure can be addressed and overcome.

Jennifer Riel (@JenniferRiel) is the associate director of the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management (@rotmanschool).

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