The Handsome Threesome
Not that long ago, a somewhat mysterious cloud shrouded creativity on the work floor. Everybody seemed to have their own definition and understanding of the word. The connotation with more artistic professions or (applied) art forms was never far away. Designers, copywriters, architects, film makers, musicians, … yes, those by definition are creative professions and creativity belongs there. Of course.
Next to that, there is the fact that creativity is very hard to measure or quantify, which has caused the relationship with the regular business world – where everything revolves around productivity, efficiency and measurable results – to be uneasy at times. Only piecemeal and also thanks to the success of groundbreaking companies like Apple, Google, Tesla, and other (mostly American) icons, did creativity get its rightful place. Moreover, creativity today has become a ‘hot topic’ with sensible, smart companies. And also with hiring new employees, creativity has evolved from being a ‘nice bonus’ to an absolute prerequisite, certainly when there are management positions involved.
But how do you position creativity against the two other concepts that are inextricably connected to it: innovation and change? These are concepts that are often named in one breath and not seldom used interchangeably. That’s why it is important to get some clarity. Let me start with this statement: we need creativity to work on innovation, in order to bring about positive change. But we can also use creativity to control negative change.
“We need creativity to work on innovation , in order to bring about positive change.”
We live in a world that changes exponentially day after day. And one change brings about another (or a range of others) automatically. Change, taken literally, is nothing more than a kind of migration of status A to status B. In order to talk about change you have to be able to discern the two statuses. There is change that we can only experience, but some changes we can control very precisely. And all shades in between of course.
Creativity Drives Change
It is Wednesday, midsummer and the sun is shining brightly. You call a few friends and invite them to your barbeque party on Sunday. Saturday (the sun is still shining) you do your shopping, prepare some dishes, and clean your terrace. You’re completely at the ready. Come Sunday morning, it starts dripping, and it gets worse. In other words, your barbeque party plans are literally drowned. What we have here, is definitely change. Status A = the sun is shining (reality in the days before) and status B = it is raining (reality today). So you will have to alter your plans anyway. And with that, you have to make some choices. Do you call your friends to postpone the barbeque party to some other date or do you cancel the party altogether? A tough decision. Postponing or cancelling may be the easiest solutions, but with the least desirable outcomes, because you as well as your friends have been looking forward to the convivial barbeque party. Are you going to look for a party tent to put up on the double? Will you have the party inside the house? Or are you and your party going to a location where it doesn’t rain that day? These are maybe less easy solutions, but the consequences are a lot more positive than in the first case: the party can go on as planned. Such solutions take creativity. The situation itself (the weather conditions) you can’t change, but by accepting the situation and using your creativity, you can get to a handsome solution.
You can transpose this example easily to a business context. Here too we have to deal with change we are hardly in control of or not at all, presenting itself at a moment we never expected. Market conditions that change profoundly, a competitor who announces price reductions unexpectedly, or enters the market with a marvelous new product, crucial production machinery that breaks down at the very moment you have to deliver an important order within two days, a spontaneous strike among your personnel, etc. By using creativity, you can get to solutions. This is what people call creative problem solving (CPS), where you often will utilize creativity reactively. And the more your organization is steeped in creativity, the better those solutions will be and the faster they will appear.
“The more an organization is steeped in creativity, the faster problems can be solved and the better those solutions will be.”
So far, our premise has been the inevitability of change. In our example of the barbeque party, we couldn’t do anything else but accept the change in weather conditions and try using creativity to come up with the best solution. We didn’t choose this example by accident, because weather conditions are by their very nature something beyond an ordinary person’s control. But we can prepare for it. If we had listened to the weather report and checked the online weather forecast regularly, we would at least have had more time to maybe find even better solutions. In a professional context that is no different: by placing ‘barometers’, using analytics, staying alert and open for internal as well as external signals, we can buy ourselves time. Time needed to think up many creative ideas, pick the best one, let it mature, test it, alter it, and prepare for its implementation. Actually, we are already laying the foundation of what we call innovation here.
The Front End of Innovation
As written a couple of paragraphs ago, innovation in itself is a planned and structured way to bring about positive change. With innovation you are going to direct the change entirely or partly yourself. In that sense it is a proactive process most of the time. If we go back to our barbeque party example, then innovation could be a device to blow away the rain clouds or to vaporize the rain drops into the air. In this case we have handled the situation itself and changed it: there is no more rain. But it doesn’t always have to be that drastic. We can also accept the situation and create a solution for the consequences of it. For instance, a barbeque that never extinguishes, a water proof cover over the terrace that extends automatically when it starts to rain or an electromagnetic substance that deflect the rain drops before they touch our skin and clothes. The rain stays, but we are not bothered by the consequences of it anymore (getting wet or the fire getting extinguished).
“Innovation is a conscious process that is geared towards changing things to improve them.”
Innovation, when it is carried out the way it should be, brings along an automatic positive change. It is a conscious process that is geared towards changing things to improve them. When we talk about innovation management, we are talking about directing a sequence of actions that result in an improvement. At the beginning of the chain there is the question. And that usually starts with the words “How can we make sure that …”. To answer that question, we have to come up with creative ideas. That means calling on creativity. That’s why creativity sometimes is called the ‘the front-end of innovation’. But also throughout further steps in the innovation process creativity remains important.
Change management is focused on preparing the organization for dealing with change. Challenges that come at us and for which we can or cannot prepare, to a greater or lesser extent. And like we already mentioned, creativity plays a prominent role here too.
Therefore we like to talk about creativity as the engine for innovation and change. An engine that responds reasonably fast and is preferably capable of a sound performance. Apart from the fact whether she is used reactive and problem solving, or proactive and future oriented, organizations where creativity is stimulated, structured, and embedded as a natural reflex, have a significant advantage over their competitors and have a much better chance to become a trendsetter in their market.
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Walter Vandervelde is a business creativity expert, fostering people’s creativity within teams and organizations. I write and I speak about creativity and occasionally I also train, guide and support organizations to use creativity and creative processes to work on change and innovation topics. He is also a lecturer at Erasmus University College Brussels, where I teach business creativity in all its aspects.