It’s what you do with innovation that counts

Creativity may provide the spark for innovation, but structure and process are its oxygen. And this is a tension that innovation leaders need to embrace.

In a recession-threatened world we grab at innovation and creativity as one would a lifebelt and indeed often it is our greatest chance of figuring out a way to achieve sustainable growth in a world of constrained resources and economic instability.

But, successful, long-lasting businesses also have to organise and structure; to establish the systems and processes to ensure that good ideas take root and add value.

For example, Carrol Boyes, one of South Africa’s most successful creative entrepreneurs, is first and foremost a sculptor and an artist. But using structured business processes she has also been able to turn her innovative designs into a commercial success and now exports South African design to over 30 countries around the world.

Pure innovation can go nowhere – there are plenty of great ideas that never get off the ground. On the other hand, pure structure leads to bureaucratic hell. In fact, in creating the innovation powerhouses of the future, it is the tension between these two poles that matters.

Dr Hilary Austen, author of Artistry Unleashed says organisations have long been struggling with this tension. “You see it as they reorganise to get more efficiency, and then again to get more innovation, and then again to regain efficiency, and so on. It is not something organisations are going to solve once and for all. Rather, it’s an ongoing tension they’ll need to recognise and manage,” she says.

So, if you want to be the next Steve Jobs, the most important thing that you have to learn is how to manage this tension well – and the second is to let that ethos permeate throughout your organisation.

The code for innovation is embedded in an organisation’s people, processes and philosophies, say innovation thinkers Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen. While innovation, they say, has to start at the top it is those leaders who manage to create organisational processes “that mirror their individual discovery behaviours” that will succeed in turning their companies into something truly and enduringly great.

Not all CEOs are lucky enough to be creative geniuses. What’s important is that innovation leaders have the ability to think differently and act differently to generate creative ideas for new products, services, processes and businesses – and that they create the conditions in their organisations for everyone (not just the R&D department) to do the same.

Without question sustainable growth is not going to come out of old ways of working, leading and managing. Existing practices will keep us in the past. Business clearly needs the creative thinkers and the crazy mavericks to come up with new ways of doing things. And innovation leaders need to allow these thinkers free rein and, somewhat paradoxically, give them structure. They need to fight the institutional urge for stability, and allow the disruptive forces of surprise, uncertainty, ambiguity and change – things that we typically avoid or fear – to simmer throughout their organisations, and to harness this effectively.

To do this takes a combination of deeply held values, vision, and conviction, combined with the application of good old fashioned business savvy.

Creativity is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for successful innovation. It’s what you do with it that counts.

This is an abridged version of an article published in Fast Company. The full article can be found on the webpage:

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