Brandt On Leadership -- Creativity's True Costs

Dec. 21, 2004
Few are willing to make the investment.

Everywhere I turn I find CEOs who believe passionately in creativity. Only through continuous innovation, they harrumph for analysts and new employees, can we hope to create value for our customers well into the future. Wall Street applauds, wet-behind-the-ears recruits huzzah, and the CEO pats himself on the back for another brilliant strategic announcement. Meanwhile, the CEO's long-term employees roll their eyes and go back to making the same old products in the same old ways for the same old customers, who react with the same old boredom. What happens in the yawning space between the CEO's mouth and the ears of his talent isn't a failure of creativity, but a failure of will. It's easy to champion creativity; it's hard to back that faith with the hard-nosed support that creates new products, new processes and new customer value: Money: Necessity may be the mother of invention, but too often the children of this poor mother are bastard products nobody will claim responsibility for -- or, even worse, buy. Creativity requires thought and experimentation, none of which happens when employees are given more and more mind-numbing tasks in successive waves of downsizing and cutting. At the same time, too many CEOs believe that innovation is a core competency best left to executive row, despite the lack of credible evidence that creativity, or even independent thought, has ever occurred there. If you want your people to be more creative, give them time to analyze and experiment on big customer value issues. If you want your people to keep repeating the same mistakes faster and faster, keep squeezing the last nickel out of every department. You'll get what you paid for. Space: There's a reason lemmings will run off a cliff: They're packed together so tightly that no individual can see far enough ahead to warn his colleagues of impending danger. Yet it's fashionable these days to build rabbit warrens of fabric -- covered cubicles for employees, to promote the egalitarian ideal that every employee is equally uncomfortable. What these human ant farms best promote is resentment, whispering and secret trips to the conference room for private phone calls. If you want innovation, you can't make your people so cramped and cranky that all they want to do is get away from each other. Give them enough space to store and spread out the magazines, reports and analysis that real thought requires. Allow them enough privacy that they can stare into space without worrying what the lemming next door thinks about it. Most of all, give them a workspace that demonstrates respect for talent that goes beyond the bottom line. Freedom: Creativity and innovation only flourish where employees feel empowered. Free not only to spend time and money creating new customer value, but also to think in new ways that may overturn traditional (i.e., your) ways of operating. Too often we ask people to be individuals, and then recoil when they have the temerity to think differently. If you want creativity, make sure your company's culture embraces talents of all kinds, creeds, races, backgrounds and personalities, not just those like yours. Safety: Innovation always involves risk. Yet in too many corporations, emphasis is placed not on managing risk, but on avoiding failure. In these cultures, the punishment for failure -- lost jobs or promotions, budget cuts, ridicule at management meetings -- far outweighs the possible benefit of succeeding with a new product or process. CEOs who value innovation find ways to celebrate failure, not for itself, but for the risk and ingenuity it represented. They celebrate it, too, so that it stays out of the closet, where it can be studied and, with luck, transformed into a later success. How passionate are you about inspiring innovation? More important, how much money, space, freedom and safety are you willing to invest in support of it? John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is president and publisher of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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