Friday, July 16, 2010

Creativity is the New Black

IBM recently released the results of its 2010 IBM Global CEO Study titled Capitalizing on Complexity. The study is based on conversations with over 1500 CEOs across all sectors worldwide.

Not surprisingly, the study cites complexity as the biggest challenge that CEOs face today. The study goes on to note that we live in a world that is more uncertain, volatile and complex than ever before. I think most of us would agree that the rules are always changing. Technology is coming at us faster than we can absorb it. There is more data to be consumed than ever before.

We live in an era of constant change.

Yet, the study identified some organizations that navigate change masterfully. What’s different about the CEO’s of these companies?


Creative leaders are thought to innovate more. They drive change in business models and revenue models. In plain English, they have new ideas. They create new products. They come up with new ways to get things done. And they don’t sit around on their butts very often. They are constantly taking action, or – as the study said – “continuously re-conceiving their strategy”. Creativity is noted as the single most important trait for navigating through the complexity.

But few of us get to be CEO. Heck, most of us never even get to talk to the CEO, so what does this mean for the typical employee?

This is where the study gets interesting… it suggests that more communication is needed. Not just communication from the top down, but also from the bottom up. It also suggests that creativity needs to exist at all levels (or in the words of the paper, “the entire organization must be equipped to be a catalyst for creativity”.) The study recommends that creative employees be recognized and rewarded.

Yes, creativity is in vogue.

I think we can expect to see HR teams hustling to update leadership assessment tools updated with a box to check off for “creativity”. But is it too much to hope for that the next time you propose to your boss that your team should do things differently that you won’t be accused of bucking the system? Or that the next time you have a brilliant idea for a new product that you might actually get the funding for it? That you will instead be rewarded for the creative genius you are?

What do you think?


Kenneth H. Lee said...

My feeling is that this is wishful thinking. My experience has been mixed. I've had several managers who were open to suggestions and discussion..... and then I've also had several managers who said that they wanted hear ideas from the ground troops on how to better run the business, we quickly learned it was all a facade since they already had made up their minds on how they wanted to proceed, but wanted to appear they they valued the ideas of the staff. Or they would take our ideas and present them as their own with no credit given. Typical lip service and political nonsense. Makes for a horrible work environment since everyone stopped making suggestions since we never got any credit for them.

Or worse, management only wanted creative ideas which we could guarantee would succeed. They wanted perfection/no mistakes. Gee.... how do people learn except through their own mistakes?? No a fun environment to be working in.

It depends on how serious the executive and senior management is about encouraging creativity and how far they are willing to go to make is a reality. It's one thing to say that they want a culture change, it's another thing to get those below you to implement it. I've seen far too many cases where certain management chains just would not follow the corporate line since they did not believe in it. This was done without any repercussions.

This example is not about creativity but is an example of management intransigence.

IBM was big into promoting telecommting, but there were managers of departments who just would not allow their employs to work remotely, even though there was no reason for it. It was the if I can not see you working, you are not working nonsense.

Too many managers and employees overstayed their welcome and were just unwilling or unable to adapt to new ideas and changes.

Colette said...

Kenneth, I do think that far too often the programs that companies intend to implement change dramatically in the actual implementation. We need buy-in at all levels of management.

Rat Racer No More? said...

I can't wait to see the initiatives that are launched to paint "creative" makeup on the same ol' managers and executives who have advanced by being malleable, easily-managed people who wouldn't dream of doing anything creative (too potentially risky to one's career!) and thereby risking rocking the boat. I assume you'll be able to check-off the creativity requirement box by hosting an annual brainstorming session and leaving it at that. In my experience, IBM doesn't really know how to nurture creativity with the possible exception of the folks at the Watson lab.

Anon_e_mouse said...

Speaking not only as a former IBMer but a second-generation one to boot... creativity was encouraged in some areas and discouraged in others. My father, a mechanical engineer by training, designed some very creative tools for handling silicon substrate that had a significant impact on the production costs of the chips at East Fishkill (and later Burlington and elsewhere, where the designs were replicated), but he met some significant resistance along the way... which may explain in part why the final revisions to one set of designs were made on our dining room table by Dad and some of his co-workers while he was home recovering from his first two heart attacks.

I had the good fortune to spend much of my sixteen year IBM career (following a two year stint in Poughkeepsie 334 [Field Engineering internal branch office]) in the cash register organization in Raleigh, which was a truly "intrapreneurial" group; we actually had official sanction to break (almost) every rule in the book, and we succeeded - both in delivering a product that practically knocked NCR out of the marketplace and in breaking all the rules. But then Lou Gerstner arrived and we were rewarded for our success by being marginalized and gutted (I was laid off in 1994).

Colette said...

You all make some great points. Where I have seen creativity work the best is in small teams that were trying to do something completely new -- where they weren't yet stifled by 'process'.

Anonymous said...

In a big company like IBM there are a great many very creative and clever people doing some amazing stuff, but how much of that ever really makes it out of starting gate is pretty much zero.
OK, so there are a few initiatives that feel like they might make a difference such as internal blogging or the adoption of Agile (although it is a IBMized version so draw your own conclusion) but most things seem to just go nowhere.

If you 'innovate' within your job you might get brownie points for it but to me that's just doing your job and the only opportunity you get that I see is within already established procedures and guidelines so how much 'innovation' is that. If you've been told to do something a particular way using the new fangled tools and you make it work, that's not really innovation, just jumping through the hoops they put there for you but it often seems like that's the extent of how much they expect.

If you 'innovate' outside of your job description (which is also expected of you) there's no budget to push it further because it's not part of your job (but please, carry on) so it does not go far.

If you try to do something that's similar to already established stuff but using say different tools to make it better/easier/simpler they don't want to know because it goes against the already established stuff.

If ruddy frustrating and annoying when nobody listens or even worse, cares.

The attitude I take though is that they pay me for my experience, knowledge and skills. I try to give the best that I can but if they ignore what I have to offer because they 'know best' then I don't care, I've done my part. If they want to waste a good part of my skill set and knowledge by not really listening to what I have to offer then why should I bother about it.

We battle on because it pays the bills and sometime that's all there is to it.

Colette said...

It sounds like everyone agrees that it's tough to truly be creative in a large company.

Peggy Robertson-Miller said...

Colette, as in the past, you've come up with an interesting topic! And thanks for mentioning the CEO’s Report. I wasn’t aware of it. Within a "problem" are the seeds for the solution. Concerns posted so far have been: ideas being usurped; implementation by someone else who takes credit; rocking the boat; and putting forth a good idea that never sees the light of day. I am a proponent of balancing risk (in career as well as in life), but not to the point of living in abject fear. I would not be afraid to be creative. Regarding co-workers who would undermine one’s efforts: if those mentors don't mentor, and managers don't manage, and departments are too scared to innovate, Don't Worry: they won't be there for long! (Certainly not in a company like IBM that strives to be THE Best!) Ok. What about those creative ideas, then? Well, I have two. 1) Wikipedia has a nice discussion of "Quality Circles." This could be used to establish "rules" for encouraging employees to be creative and think "outside the box," as the over-used but relevant phrase goes... It would be an old tool, but I’d use it in this new way. (See ) 2) Another idea I have is using peer to peer reviews, within the company, but just for creative ideas. Companies today use the peer review in many ways, but I’m suggesting taking this older tool and using it in a new and different way, thereby establishing a process where management can look for... well, "ideas"! Let’s say I have a great idea (like This one, for instance!). I could create a presentation for a review team of my co-workers. There’d be an established time each week (or month) setting aside a few minutes to have peers review one’s ideas. All peers login at the same time (using the magic of conferencing and PDFs). Each person puts forth their best creative idea and each person with a new idea waits their turn for their few minutes in the spotlight. Peers look over the presentations and give feedback on what might improve the creative idea, or help avoid obvious pitfalls. Then the intellectual property is categorized in a "creative ideas for our company” database somewhere, (just available on the company Intranet) and there it stays. Any group in the company (Quality Circles?) can pick up the ball of this particular creative idea and run with it. Or the individual (me) who came up with the idea can be the one to follow through. But the idea is that the whole thing is very clear who had the original idea because their name and terminal ID and the date of the submission is documented with a digital signature; all of which are stored in this DB called "creative ideas for our company.” Problem solved! Of course, there’s no guarantee that the "Creative Idea" will ever be implemented; nor that the person responsible for the idea will be singled out and get rich if it becomes the next “killer app”... (Ultimately, one’s work for one’s company usually belongs to the company!) But in the event that the creative idea IS implemented, there remains documentation showing authorship. Also: if someone else has a creative idea, and wonders if anyone has ever broached it within the company before, that individual can research the Intranet DB’s earlier “creative” submissions to see if the idea has been peer reviewed. Maybe the 2nd person finds that their "new" creative idea HAS been reviewed. But (s)he has a new slant on things and so proposes an addendum to the original "creative idea". This too can be peer reviewed and documented, and if the idea is implemented within the company, then both people get a note in the "Kudos" section, or whatever. One final thought: if a company doesn't know how to institute or implement an internal peer review process, (or "Quality Circles" -- done first in Japan, BTW), the ISO can help, with specialized standards for every industry! Information is a good thing. Sharing it is even better!

Colette said...

Peggy, I think you mention some really great ways to foster creativity.

I think the difficulty is not so much at the employee level -- most would love to be able to flex those creative muscles. The key is to get buy-in at senior levels.

Peggy Robertson-Miller said...

Very good point. With things in such a flux, as was discussed in the CEO's report, perhaps that will turn around -- in time! The wheels of change do seem to turn slowly, though, don't they?

Colette said...

Peggy. I think we'd all like to see it change!

Greg said...

Large companies such as IBM do struggle with creativity. Take software. Many very creative initiatives have been sponsored and encouraged by senior managers and then IBM goes out and buys a competitive company and then 'bingo' the new company's product is the new strategy and all creative inhouse equivalent tools are cancelled. Now this is the reality of business but it can be very frustrating.

Colette said...

Greg, I have seen the same thing happen with two internal products. One disadvantage to big is that one hand doesn't know what the other is doing.

Colette said...

Andree, yes, creative types do have a tendency to get a bad rap. Too much pressure on short term results.

Colette said...

Yes, that's a good point.

The CEO study uses a broad definition of creative -- in fact it may be more about the vision than the actual hands on creative.

Anonymous said...

Your comment, “… as if what they write will actually make a difference in their assessment. It’s likely that the management team has already decided what each employee’s assessment will be.” reminded me of a cynic’s comment about this process. He claimed that we have now reached d├ętente with management. We can write anything we want in our review and management will not challenge it. On the other hand, management can pick any rating they want for us and we can’t challenge that.

Colette said...

Anonymous - maybe a bit of cynicism or sarcasm sneaking through - but tinged with some truth.