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Creativity, Innovation, and the "Program Trap" Published: Sunday, November 18, 2001 By: Ing. Ulises Pabón

I was recently speaking with a senior executive of a highly regarded corporation. He was aware of my recent book on organizational creativity (Creatividad Organizacional, 2001), and proceeded to describe the life and death of an Idea Program that he tried to put in place in his organization. He explained how something that had started with a bang, ended with a wimp. He was neither cynic nor sarcastic. On the contrary, as he progressed through his story, I sensed disappointment and sadness. He had a genuine interest in the “program’s” success. When he finished talking, his silent stare seemed to ask: What did we do wrong? Rather than wait for the question, I volunteered: “Looks like you fell victim to the program trap.”

All you need is about two years of experience working in any organization to be able to recognize the “Program Trap” in action. Initially, an official announcement is made to create awareness among all employees about the new “program”. Then, an internal publicity campaign is started and a training program is initiated for those involved in the “program”. As the different actions relevant to the “program” are put in place, results are measured, and achievements are recognized. After the initial furor and the respective celebrations, management starts to note that the “program” will not solve all of their problems. Hence, they start to loose confidence in the “program” and interest starts to decline. Those opposing the “program” during its inception, but that lacked the guts to confront management then, are now ready to speak up and denounce the faults and problems with the “program”. Management concludes that the “program” is a failure and decides to abandon the effort. It really doesn’t matter, given that a new “program” is now capturing their attention.

Organizations that approached the Quality movement as a “program” paid the consequences of adopting such an approach. Executive frustration grew in absence of quick-fix solutions and employee motivation dropped when they realized that participation and involvement was just a momentary affair. On the other hand, in organizations that avoided the “program trap”, Quality not only survived but also evolved to incorporate newer and more sophisticated management practices.

We need to keep this experience in mind when dealing with the recent interest in creativity and innovation. After studying over 50 corporate “idea programs”, I have concluded that they all suffer from the same limitations. Let me describe three of the most common mistakes you are likely to find in a typical “idea program”.

First, many programs assume that all you need to do to get creative ideas is to ask people for creative ideas. This assumption is incorrect. On one hand, if the organization has a history of autocratic management and repression, inviting people to give their ideas will not be enough to dislodge the lack of trust that reins. And lack of trust is a big enough barrier to prevent the sharing of great ideas. On the other hand, even in the best environment, if people are unaware of the techniques and tools available to stimulate creative thought, more than likely, their inventory of ideas will be limited to the assumptions and paradigms that dominate their mindset at the moment. Second, many “programs” fail to differentiate between creativity and invention. Creativity is a cognitive act. It occurs in the mind of the thinker. The creative act can be described as the connection of previously disconnected ideas, concepts or experiences. Invention occurs when we bring into existence something new. Bringing into existence means translating the creative concept or idea from the cognitive world to the natural world. Many people dreamt about flying, but it took two brothers and their knowledge in mechanics and physics to bring that dream to fruition. By ignoring the difference between creativity and invention, many organizations place the cart in front of the horse. Some organizations don’t know what to do when they are flooded with unreal, impractical, and irrelevant ideas. Others expect people to solve complex technical problems by just asking for their opinions, irrespective of their knowledge in the field. Speculation and free and unlimited thinking plays an important role in the creative process. However, the moment comes when we have to move from seeds and provocations into solution space. At the end of the day, our customers and stockholders will ask for solutions and inventions. In order to be successful, any effort promoting creativity has to make this important leap.

Third, many “programs” want to cover so much they end up impacting very little. Many organizations loose focus when dealing with company wide “programs”. It’s useless to discover a breakthrough in slide-rulers if customers are buying scientific calculators and computers! Management has to keep their eyes and ears open, they need to understand the perspective of all stakeholders in their industry, and they need to provide direction and purpose. Initiative without direction may turn into a pleasant surprise (perhaps we want to dedicate a fraction of our budget to this type of endeavor), but can also be a waste of resources. The problem with many creativity and innovation “programs” is that they want to cover the whole organization with little direction or sense of priority throughout the process.

Organizational creativity is a capability issue. A true effort must focus on developing this capability through many fronts. People must learn the concepts and techniques behind creative thinking. They must be given the space to put this knowledge into action. At the organizational level, obsolete practices must be abandoned and innovation-friendly processes and management systems must be put in place. Depending on a “program”, in the absence of pertinent changes, will lead to wasted energy and failure. Only true capability will deliver results.

Ideas, as such, are definitely valuable. Without ideas, we will never arrive to solutions or to inventions. However, if we want to convert creativity and innovation into a core organizational competence, we have to avoid the “idea program” trap. As leaders and change agents, we need to understand the processes that lead to creativity and innovation; we need to educate our workforce in the proper knowledge, tools, and skills; we need to establish an organizational infrastructure that will promote innovation; and we need to provide leadership and direction throughout the process.


Copyright 2002 QBS, Inc.
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