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Are You Tapping Your Creative Capacity?

August 16, 2011

It was hard to ignore the results of the IBM CEO study that arrived last week. As one of my colleagues noted, “Wow. This looks just like something we could have written.”

Indeed, top-level headlines describing how change is accelerating, how leaders need to become better at reinventing their businesses, and the critical importance of customer focus, echo critical themes explored by me and my colleagues in recent years.

It’s good to see growing alignment about the need to confront the “new normal” of constant change. Yet, while I agree with many of the report’s broad findings, something nagged me as I thought about it over the weekend. I finally put my finger on it as I touched down in Manila on Monday night: I worry that leaders seeking to meet the challenges spelled out in IBM’s report will completely miss the mark.

That concern is most acute when it comes to the report’s first section, which described how CEOs were looking for more creative leaders. As IBM Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano noted in the report’s introduction, respondents viewed creativity as the “single most important leadership competency for enterprises seeking a path through this complexity.”

The report suggests that creative leaders should “embrace ambiguity,” “take risks that disrupt legacy business models,” and “leapfrog beyond tried-and-true management styles.”

Executives certainly feel the need for this kind of creativity. IBM’s survey provides one clear example. My own experience suggests that executives often lament how their organization “isn’t good at developing good ideas” or “isn’t as creative as it should be.” One leader put it bluntly: “Can’t you just get my people to be more innovative? If not, can you help me find some new people?”

What’s behind questions like this is an implicit assumption that creativity is a human capital problem. If this assumption is right, the answer is coaching, cajoling, or — in an extreme case or — replacement.

But having spent a lot of time inside a lot of companies, I believe that human capital isn’t the problem. Organizations tap a mere fraction of their creative capacity. I’ve seen companies — even ones that from the outside look staid and stuck in their ways — produce beautifully creative ideas, and wonderfully creative plans…on paper.

Of course, banks don’t accept business plans as legal tender. And that’s the problem. Most companies don’t have the systems and structures to turn paper plans into profits. I call this the “First Mile” problem.

Trying to increase individual creativity without addressing the factors that cause the First Mile problem — namely human resources, strategy, resource allocation, metrics, and incentives — is destined to disappoint.

Working on those factors, however, could provide rocket fuel to a company’s innovation efforts, by releasing the constrained creativity languishing in most organizations. Organizations don’t really need more creative leaders. They need to organize in a way that channels their untapped but inherent creativity.

Scott Anthony

Scott leads Innosight’s Asian operations. His fourth book on innovation, The Little Black Book of Innovation, will be released in early 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottDAnthony.

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From → Creative, Innovation

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