According to a 2013 survey of 1 500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, CEOs unanimously identify creativity as the most important leadership competency for the successful enterprise of the future. It is our greatest chance of figuring out a way to achieve sustainable growth in a world of constrained resources and economic instability.
But in fact, this is only part of the truth.
Successful, long-lasting businesses also have to be able to hold a line – to organise and structure – in short, to establish the systems and processes to ensure that the good ideas take root and add the value they are meant to. Carrol Boyes, one of South Africa’s most successful creative entrepreneurs, for example, is first and foremost a sculptor and an artist, but she was also able to turn her innovative designs into a commercial success and grow this into a business that now exports South African design to over 30 countries around the world.
In fact, in creating the innovation powerhouses of the future, it is the tension between these two poles that matters. Pure innovation can go nowhere – there are plenty of great ideas that never get off the drawing board – but on the other hand, pure structure leads to bureaucratic hell.
Dr Hilary Austen, author of Artistry Unleashed, says organisations have been struggling with this tension since the beginning of time. “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 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 (PhD, University of California, Los Angeles) and Hal Gregersen (PhD, University of California, Irvine).
So while innovation, they say, has to start at the top – Tesla Motors would not be the first successful car company start-up in America in 90 years without Elon Musk’s personal vision and passion – 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.
Of course, not all CEOs are lucky enough to have Boyes’ creativity or the engineering genius of Musk, but we don’t all have to be creative geniuses to be successful innovation leaders. 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 research and development department) to do the same.
Without question, sustainable growth is not going to come out of old ways of working, leading and managing. Existing standards 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.
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.