Efficiency is Gold; Innovation is Platinum

 

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Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

 

There is no literature that is less inspiring or more boring than the stuff written about creativity. That is really too bad, especially today when the need for effective innovation is so strong.  The process of creativity remains a mystery.

Long ago in the Information Technology revolution, process improvement was all the rage. That was the heyday of reengineering and quality improvement.  While process improvement programs have improved productivity dramatically, that’s no longer the essence of what’s happening.  Web speed and the Internet changed that.  As knowledge speeds, and in short order is shared, no competitive advantage lasts for long. That’s why improving efficiency has become much less important than discovering and developing something customers want before they know it and before competitors have it.

The focus now is on speed, change and creativity. The Holy Grail is The Big Idea.  The big idea generates an “aha!” response.  “Yes! That’s it!” It’s intuitive. There’s an immediate conviction that that’s the way to go.  It doesn’t need an explanation.  People hear it and they get it.

Benchmarking is yesterday’s news: giving yourself a grade on what’s already being done is looking backwards. Organizations need employees who can imagine products and services that no one’s thought of before. “Think outside the box. Push the envelope.”  Everyone wants to hit a creative home run, a quantum breakthrough that competitors will have trouble replicating, much less topping.

Most people can achieve baby steps, small incremental improvements. That doesn’t require much in the way of perceiving and thinking very differently.  But the big idea is a giant step and it requires perceiving things in a whole new way.  The big idea requires knowledge, intuition and creativity.

Creativity has moved to center stage. It’s pretty easy to identify creativity – like leadership, the effects are clearly visible.  But also like leadership, analyzing and listing the components that underlie and create creativity always seems to miss the mark.  It’s not the components; it’s the whole wherein the magic lies.  “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” Miles Davis says.

Like leadership, creativity is very difficult to teach. Being creative seems to be more a matter of talent and personal courage than it is a result of experience and training.  Therefore, the fastest route to innovation is identifying talented, creative people who can depart from what is and imagine what can be.

Yet, young kids are naturally creative. Unfettered by rules of what’s right, kids are continuously startling us by the novelty of what they see and what they do.  Unfortunately, by the time they get to kindergarten most have learned to only color within the lines.

While it’s hard to create creativity, it’s too easy to crush it. It is really easy to motivate people to stay safe in their confined pasts.  Even when companies hire “wild ducks,” they strive to tame them, to make them conform. Wartime start-ups are cauldrons of creative energy.  The advantage a start-up has is it doesn’t yet have a powerful hierarchy because knowledge determines power; it’s too new to have strong group norms; it’s too early in its development to have a powerful culture.  So people are free to be themselves.

Most people who gravitate to a startup are energized by the risk and exhilarated by the opportunity. They’re ready to create a company and offer something really new.  They’re comfortable with uncharted territory.  The most desirable achievement is to “Move the Needle!” That means the goal is to create something so new and innovative, something akin to the Web that could revolutionize a whole industry and maybe an economy.

As more countries and more people stayed wired into the Net, more and more ideas and data will be created and exchanged. The rewards for creativity and effective innovation has grown exponentially. The amount of and the rate of innovation has increased.  Hats off to those who manage to hang in.

 

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