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Innovation and Creativity in Business

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Organizational psychologists have long assumed that innovation and creativity are linked. Research published in the Journal of Business Venturing questioned that link and confirmed it, “especially at the individual level.” Surprisingly, the researchers found that larger firms with “moderate levels of uncertainty avoidance” were more likely to develop a strong creativity and innovation link than smaller, risk-seeking firms—perhaps the opposite of what you would expect.

In fact, most articles blame big firms for an environment that stifles innovation with an inflexible culture, rigid processes, and poor communication. They overlook the advantages of big firms having:

  • Many small groups (or teams) of individuals who can each come up with creative ideas and execute innovations
  • Greater diversity, which has been shown to be key to creativity and innovation and to sensible risk-taking
  • Greater resources to encourage learning and experimentation and to follow through on an idea that may not seem to fit the current business model
  • The ability to bring in outside experts to help with a multitude of techniques and strategies rather than relying solely on brainstorming and to finance those strategies.
  • Negotiating power to recruit and retain high caliber talent.

The above advantages depend on the willingness and ability of business leaders to:

  • Seek out creative people when hiring
  • Inspire employees to learn and make connections with experts and mentors
  • Encourage experimentation without judgment of failure
  • Be open to ideas from everyone at all levels of the organization
  • Create an innovation process that allows ideas to move forward easily
  • Recognize the value in a “mere tweak”
  • Rewards creativity
  • Communicates innovation and creativity globally

But perhaps the most important qualification is that leaders be willing to approach creativity in many different ways.

TIP: Creativity is idea generation; innovation is the execution of that idea. Creativity and innovation depend on the willingness of leaders to provide resources for what is new, different, and somewhat risky—and support the people who deliver the new.

Strategies That Don’t Encourage Creativity

In another finding that moves against popular belief, many experiments have proven that brainstorming is not the best way to encourage creativity. One of the drawbacks of brainstorming is that everyone is encouraged to piggyback their ideas on everyone else—stifling individual creativity.

Some businesses have compounded the drawbacks of brainstorming by moving to crowdsourcing ideas—asking thousands of random online people to contribute their ideas. The result is usually a pile of impractical, contradictory, half-formed thoughts that may already be someone else’s intellectual proprietary, are far from confidential, and put a tremendous burden on your team—who should be your first-line sources for creativity and innovation.

Strategies That Do Encourage Creativity

The following three strategies cover the creativity continuum, as one author has named it, and have actually worked in real life:

  • Look for the opportunity—whatever it is. Review your current list of projects to find any creative idea that has slipped away because (a) no one is interested in it; (b) it doesn’t fit the current trajectory of the company; and (c) it doesn’t solve an immediate problem. Some of the greatest innovations have been accidental or inadvertent. You might formally assign someone in your team to watch out for those illusive creative ideas.
  • Change perspective. If you and your team normally talk out problems, try a different creative strategy: drawing the problem, acting it out, using objects to represent the problem, or indulging in wishful thinking. One of the most important ways to change perspective is through education and experience. If you have been in the leadership role for a long time, for example, stimulate your creativity by joining your workforce for a day and actually experiencing what they experience. If you have spent your career in one field or industry, try learning about a different one. While crowdsourcing has definite—even legal—drawbacks, a customer focus allows you to see gaps in your product or service that may not be apparent to those responsible for delivery. Diversifying your team is another way to draw insights from different sources to spark creativity.
  • Combine analysis with intuition. Creativity depends on knowing the facts and then taking leaps. You can analyze your way to creativity—recombining known information and coming to a logical conclusion. But if you also allow for imaginative leaps, you will increase your creativity. Individuals alone tend to favor either analysis or intuition, presenting yet another argument in favor of diverse teams. More creativity emerges when members of a group are allowed to break the rules and envision an entirely different future, rather than fixing the past.
  • Allow distance and anonymity. Your most creative people may be those who prefer to work alone or are hesitant to own their flights of fancy. In “Brainwriting,” a creative strategy that is a variant of brainstorming, a defined question is set before a group. Under a time limit, each person sets a new idea down in writing; the person then passes the paper to someone else (often their neighbor) in the group to build on to the idea until all papers have been seen, read, and built upon by at least three people. An alternative creative strategy is to ask individuals to research and come up with ideas on their own, and then present their ideas—or have their ideas anonymously presented—to the entire group as individual reports.
  • Allow time. The 15% Rule was first instituted at 3M to allow employees time to simply think: to daydream and to experiment. Individual employees and teams are encouraged to find new and better ways to improve their own performance or the company’s products and services. Techniques like Kaizen and Lean build on this rule by guiding groups of employees to fix their own problems.
  • Make it easy. People tend to repeat easy processes and avoid hard ones. Your creative strategy should reward even failure, create a simple process for review and approval, celebrate successful ideas, and encourage flexibility in the way ideas are presented (for example, some ideas sink under the weight of a detailed risk analysis). You support creativity by allowing people to study subjects not directly related to their duties, interact with people outside their area of responsibility, and investigate what interests them rather than what brings immediate reward to the company. Making creativity easy also makes it risky, but making it hard makes it impossible.

TIP: To find the best creative strategy for you and your team, consider available resources (including time), level of comfort with analysis versus intuition, and the ease of the process.

Key Takeaways

Brainstorming is just one and not necessarily the best one of many creative strategies. The strategy or combination of strategies that you select for yourself or your team depends greatly on the makeup and diversity of the team and everyone’s openness to new perspectives.

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