Why Creativity is Dangerous for Business Innovation

by Walter Adamson

Why Creativity is Dangerous for Business InnovationI don’t have much time for the BS of what I call the “innovation industry”, although I do certainly admire their ability to create wealth for themselves by selling this BS. But I resent the fact that I have to ultimately pay for it in services I buy e.g. I have to pay for the “Innovation Department” at the ANZ bank in my bank fees. When the banks award themselves prizes for their “innovation” it’s always astounding how the “innovation” is the least of what you would expect as being an everyday part of the service.

The big banks have proven to be perfect candidates for the innovation industry, sold up the line on the need for “creativity” and brainstorming and plastering yellow sticky notes around rooms, and having performance artists jig around the room at management training. Personally I find most street performers plain dull, perhaps even stupid – I’m not their mother!

That’s why creativity is dangerous for the vast majority of businesses. It diverts attention and resources from real business innovation. Let’s put aside the 1 or 2% of companies that need to be and are genuinely creative, or inventive. They are a special case, not the 98% norm.

In which case the 98% norm would do a lot better, in my opinion, to follow Apple, an astoundingly uncreative company. After all the iPhone was the lowest common denominator of it’s non-Apple ancestors. DoCoMo in Japan invented the “app-store” more than a decade ago, and it’s still larger than the Apple app store is today. KDDI in Japan invented mobile music downloads, and their management and commercial deals with the record companies a decade ago. Sharp had the non-keyboard touch screen, and far superior camera and optics, many years before the iPhone version 1 etc etc.

BUT, Apple is the most successful. Because of their plain boring uncreative business innovation in combining, refining, and negotiating a great new ecosystem and value proposition for consumers. Street clowns and Innovation Departments not necessary!

Don’t take it from me, Steve Jobs says “Good artists copy, great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

When you get that happening as something everyone in the organization is responsible for all the time, and to the point that it happens in a casual and “unprofessional” manner because it is ingrained into every meeting and every conversation with customers and every observation of the market, then you are very likely to create real wealth. And innovation without wealth creation is not innovation.

But a mind-set change is never easy, and it is made harder by the innovation industry preaching creativity instead of the synthesis and analysis of customer and internal insights as an everyday practice.

That’s why some people use different words, such as “imitation”, to try to drive thinking away from the street performers. For example Oded Shenkar recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review (April 2010) that “Imitation Is More Valuable Than Innovation” and that “imitation is underappreciated”. It’s a good effort, but in my mind a pity that we can’t use “innovation” in a business context to mean “business innovation” because it has been corrupted by “creativity”.

Business innovation isn’t “something from nothing” where that nothing has no context, which is how creativity seems to be often described. It may well be from a fantastic insight or synthesis of “white space” between existing services, products, thoughts or feedback, which in a sense is something from nothing but within a context.

And counter-intuitively business innovation includes letting go of the things you once innovated yourself into and love to do. Letting go is often one of the hardest acts of business innovation, which Drucker pointed out a long time ago – his concept of “planned abandonment”.

A key question that Drucker often liked to ask management was: “If we did not do this already, would we go into it now?”

There’s nothing creative about that, but there is something authentic. Drucker also said, “Innovation opportunities do not come with the tempest but with the rustling of the breeze.”

I say chasing creativity is destroying wealth for most businesses, that’s why it is dangerous.

On the other hand, driving a culture of relentless curiosity about your own business, your customers’ businesses, your competitor’s businesses and markets, and knowing how to synthesis that and deliver it through your own organization, is what I call business innovation. That’s worth it’s weight in gold, and it is sustainable.

Are you a “creativist” or a “synthesist” when it comes to business innovation?

Do you think Apple just steals ideas, or what extra “secret sauce” do they add?

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Walter AdamsonWalter Adamson is CEO of NewLeaseG2M in Melbourne Australia which helps IT companies transform their customer engagement. He is a Certified Social Media Consultant, and has held corporate executive roles including IS Audit, Business Development, Marketing & Sales. His social web is http://xeesm.com/walter

No comments

  1. Valeri Kireitchik

    Hi Walter,

    I like an idea to use great ideas from everywhere.
    But we will still need creativity when we implement innovations. We need cretivity to handle thousands of hindering factors any innovation encounters, I believe.

  2. Walter, a very provocative and intriguing statement, that! (I’m referring to “that’s why creativity is dangerous for the vast majority of businesses.”) Studies by Stuart Kauffman et al allude to the combinations and re-combinations of complements/substitutes that companies like Apple indulge in as another form of creativity. Google ‘The Role of Psychological Distance in Creativity and Innovation’ to read on this and some other recent research. The link is http://thelaughingbuddha.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/the-role-of-psychological-distance-in-creativity-and-innovation/

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