Who's to blame when creativity goes missing? | Contributor

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal

In your organization, who is ultimately accountable for creativity? Before you answer, let me share a story with you.

Back in 1988, when first beginning my consulting practice, I was hired by the director of the new business development group at Standard Oil of Ohio (now British Petroleum) in Cleveland for a very specific purpose. The group had been charged with coming up with new lines of business for the company, but after nearly five years had failed to develop anything that had made it through the further funding process at the company.

The director knew me as someone who was able to encourage both individuals and groups to think in a new way about old or existing problems. He had seen me working with groups around seemingly intractable issues and saw that through new thinking, new courses of action could emerge. Maybe I could help.

When I began relationships with new clients, my initial approach was to spend some time just observing the ongoing practices before beginning to make any suggestions or proposing solutions. As I watched and questioned, I was surprised to find that the group had developed a number of products that would have seemed promising to me given my understanding of the mission they had been charged with.

After this early period of observation, I began probing into the process the group needed to follow in order to receive funding to scale up their creations. It was during this investigation that I began to suspect what the issue holding the group back might be.

I spent some time with the folks who were responsible for the review process that my client’s creations were failing to make it through. Nice people. As you might suspect, financial types, steeped in the traditions of trying to ascertain the return on investment of any monies they lent to an internal project.

From these conversations, I determined that they viewed my client group as well-meaning but starry eyed for the most part. However, they assured me they were eager to have them come up with something practical that would merit further investment.

Translation: “We like these guys. We just wish they would bring us something we know will work or at least looks familiar.”

As it turned out, my relationship with this client was short lived. My recommendation, which was followed, was to disband the group and have people go back to positions inside the company where they could be successful. In my explanation for the recommendation, I pointed out what they already knew: Many of the ideas they had previously come up with were in fact viable, just not inside the evaluation process as it was calibrated at the company in 1988.

In short, if the group presented anything to the funding committee that did not look like the Standard Oil of Ohio of 1988, then they were not going to approve further investment. The company was making plenty of money at the time. The committee members were all company “lifers” who had neither inclination nor incentive to take any risk, so saying no was the safest course of action.

In the end, when the group did disband, three of its members, including my client, left the company with one of their creations and started what has become a very successful diagnostics firm that provides predictive maintenance services to heavy equipment users.

Did that committee at Standard Oil make a tragic mistake? Not really. Their actions were really quite typical for the situation.

But isn’t it possible that we’ve made progress in breaking through this type of thinking since 1988?

Thomas Frank in a lengthy piece, titled “TED talks are lying to you,” sums it up nicely: “What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise.”

As long as the creative process is devoted to charting a new future for the organization, it will have a hard time getting funding if it is being run by people who mostly  see things through the lens of past success.

So what’s the punch line? Doesn’t someone need to be accountable for creativity in our organizations?

Yes, it is probably a good idea. It is probably also a good idea to realize that inside evaluation alone may not be all that’s necessary to insure that what is truly creative is recognized.

Or maybe, when you say “creative,” do you really mean “different but predictable”?

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at www.heartofengagement.com.

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