Instituting innovation

Innovation is the implementation of creativity.

The Institute of Directors has just held a one-day seminar Рsorry, workshop. Workshop implies work and this reassures those who foot the bill. The topic: innovation. Listening to radio interviews on the morning of the event, I learned that this too was something of an innovation, at least for the IoD. Strange, since innovation, the business clich̩ assures us, is the life-blood of a company. Now the terms innovation and creativity are often confused and used interchangeably. But the IoD chose innovation, knowingly. Innovation subsumes creativity, which is the engine of innovation.

Innovation is the implementation of creativity.

It concerns, above all, process. And this is what the average director wants to hear about. Something that is organised, linear, sequential; a series of manageable and related stages. Not messy like the creative act or the popular stereotype of the creative person.

Workshops on creativity – and there are such things – demand more flexibility from both tutor and participant. Management’s attitude to creativity reminds me of the historian AJP Taylor’s remark about civil servants: “Administrators want history with the passion left out and machinery put in.”

Promise potential punters machinery and you’ll sell more tickets. Machinery is more easily comprehended and replicated than passion. More noteworthy – in the literal sense. Creativity, on the other hand, seems ill disciplined. Yet those of us involved in it know that discipline is a creative as well as a business necessity. The trouble is that we make a bad fist of teaching this to others. The key subject surely to teach IoD delegates, above innovation, is the creative/ business interface. Those two words form an oxymoron. I know. I created and named a company based on this apparent contradiction in terms. Creative businesses succeed when the two elements act symbiotically.

Contrary to popular belief, the true creative does not crave absolute freedom. He or she demands the tightest of briefs – and finds freedom therein. A freedom within constraint. An analogy is packing for a holiday. The size of your case and airline regulations together limit choice. But, arrive at your destination and the absence of too much choice is liberating. Furthermore, as my partner observes, you might combine two items of clothing never normally coupled.

The greatest ideas are in effect “triumphs of imagination set free by limitation”. (I read that in a book I wrote.) The duty of those who commission creative work is to provide not freedom, but a liberating and accordingly tight brief. Denied that, the creative will provide his or her own. The artist will construct a frame. The last time we visited our grandson he was preoccupied with Lego. He was playing with a limited number of pieces. When asked why he wasn’t using the whole kit, Laurence replied that he liked to take just a few bits and see how many different things he could make from them.

If you want to understand creativity you can do worse than study the nearest six-year-old. “It took me 60 years to see like a child,” said Picasso. And I read in The Week that a Scottish schoolboy of 14 has invented a device to prevent motorway pile-ups. It “involves fitting electronic sensors to the accelerator, so if the driver takes his foot off the pedal quickly, the brake light comes on.” Ideas surprise. And the biggest surprise is the classic observation, made on this occasion by a Scottish Haulage Association representative. Why didn’t someone come up with the idea before?

Understanding creativity, how it happens, how it’s encouraged, nurtured, and harnessed and, importantly, what in your own behaviour can frustrate it – these are lessons for directors which should assume precedence over the teaching of process.

Creativity, though, can’t be injected into a company by means of a quick fix. In a related context I recall Rodney Fitch commenting on corporate identity schemes. “What a company needs more often than not is not a new logo, but a new board of directors.” Making a business creative demands a change of culture. The IoD is to be congratulated on teaching innovation. To judge by this year’s disappointing number of Queen’s Awards for innovation, the lowest for over 20 years, the initiative is timely.

However, there is a danger that delegates – even, who knows, the institute itself – will believe process is all and that the machinery will crush the passion.

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