You can’t systemise creativity

I saw a quote last week that appealed to me. John Sumser from the excellent HR Examiner was reporting what must be the overheard line of the week,

“…if we knew what we were doing, this wouldn’t be cutting edge….”

It made me smile because within one short sentence you have a pretty good summing up of the entire creativity/innovation/experimentation experience.  It is a little bit messy and often uncertain. It can feel directionless, purposeless and baffling to others around.

It also reminded me of a personal experience years ago when I was presenting to a board on a new initiative that I believed would be both ground breaking and commercially beneficial to the company. Finishing my presentation full of youthful exuberance and positivity, I was met with a simple question, “what are our competitors doing?”

Sadly, the reason for asking wasn’t to seek competitive advantage, but as means to explain that if no-one else was doing it, it probably wasn’t worthwhile and my answer that, “shouldn’t we want them to be asking that of us?” fell on deaf ears.

An therein lies the problem with innovation and creativity in many organisations. We value certainty, data, facts and benchmarking, yet we talk about innovation, entrepreneurialism and creativity. One is solid, robust, measured and definite. The other can often feel like the crazy.

Creating organisational cultures that allow genuine experimentation and innovation is hard. We are drawn to put boundaries around it and to try to “organise” it or “systemise” it, because that is or comfort zone. Despite implicitly knowing that these are the kryptonite to the very things we want to encourage.

If we want to go to places that no-one else has been, then by definition we will never be entirely certain of the outcome. We can have hypotheses, we can test and measure those, but we need to live with a level of uncertainty and ambiguity.

My worry, is that in a world where we are increasingly looking at data to define every decision, we forget that sometimes you need to combine insight and intuition. That there needs to be a place for creative thinking, brave decision-making and seemingly impossible futures.

It is absolutely right to measure the problem, but sometimes we need to dream the solution.

5 HR mindsets for the future (and right now)

1) Adaptability – HR has been built on creating fixed structure and immobility. That’s where we used to add value, but no more. The frustration that we hear in a lot of organisations is that the world is demanding more flexibility and yet the profession is slow to catch up. We need to be more adaptable, able to turn our hands to anything and make decisions based on the immediate circumstances that face us, to help our businesses move forward.

2) Tech Savvy – I can’t repeat this too many times; if you don’t understand technology then you’re going to find yourself obsolete pretty damn quickly. It isn’t a case of being an expert, although having some coding experience in your team is never going to hurt. Our experience as human beings is increasingly influenced by technology, so if you want to be in HR you need to understand that experience.

3) Commerciality – Before I lose you….I’m not talking about the stupid linear relationship that most people draw when they talk about HR and commercial reality. I’m talking about the big global issues that you need to understand to help your organisation navigate the next ten or twenty years. Demographics, pension legislation, immigration and emigration, skills and education. Changes in FX rates, inflation and interest rates. You’re on top of them right?

4) Creativity – If we are going to adaptable, tech savvy and commercial then we sure as hell need to be creative too. We too often look down our noses at creativity and view pragmatism as the holy grail of HR. Remind me the last time you went to a party and talked to your friends or family about this amazing piece of pragmatism. Then ask yourself the same question about creativity. It matters.

5) Connectivity – Our ability to see inter connections, relationships, to look inside and out and see how things relate, to understand the impact of one element of practice on another is critical. Our ability to think systematically and understand that neither our organisations nor our practice can operate in isolation. We need to be the organisational glue, not the institutional porridge.

Innovation versus process: Day one of #CIPD12

Life is about contrast, the good and the bad, the brave and the faint hearted, the inspirational and the disappointing. The great thing about contrast is that it helps you to form an opinion, helps you to learn and, if you take the time to reflect and consider, it can help you to grow.

The first day of the CIPD Annual Conference has been a lot about contrast.

As an opening session, Gary Hamel was never going to disappoint. Energetic, humorous, informed and challenging.  Some of the quotes alone were worth attending for,

“No-one grows up wanting to be a manager”

“Markets are better at allocating resources than managers”

“Management was created by engineers and accountants…..and it shows”

And my personal favourite,

“Organisations are like dogs, really good at peeing on lamp posts, not so good at doing the tango”

But entertainment is one thing.  Was there substance behind it and what did we know that we didn’t know before we entered the room? The answer to the first question is yes, the answer to the second….not so much. But ou often don’t need to learn, just being reminded can be powerful.

The basis for future organisational success and growth needs to be about defining a higher purpose which we can all collectively work towards. Management is a tool that has developed to ensure conformity, but the organisations that will thrive and succeed are those that are not focussed on conformity, but focussed on innovation. And as HR people the fundamental issue for us is not developing better processes, better tools or better methods, but helping to develop better principles. In order to innovate and create at speed we need to focus on decentralization and not centralization.

Music to my ears.

The thing is, though, as an HR profession we have been focussed on the antithesis of these principles. We have become focussed on process and procedure. We desire conformity and control more than anything and this lust has led us on an ongoing agenda of centralization and aggregation. We have shown the greatest lack of ingenuity, innovation and free thinking since the lemmings all decided it was a good idea to follow one another off the cliff.

But life is full fo contrasts and on leaving the session, I went in to another (to remain unnamed) where I was presented with a “case study” full of process and procedure. And when I say full……I mean full. There isn’t enough Valium in the world to get me through that session.

If this is an organisational challenge then it is one which we are ill-equipped and ill prepared to tackle as we currently stand. Both a risk and at the same time an amazing opportunity. Because if we can get our own house in order, then we can play an important role of the evolution of business, work and the workplace.

From what I see though, we have a long way to go.

Creating growth

My friend Rick over at Flip Chart Fairytales wrote a post recently bemoaning (or at least questioning) the lack of creativity in business. Pulling together a number of commentators he makes, as you’d expect, some great points and the comments are equally as good. But, I read the post with a certain sense of despair.

“Creativity has always been a long hard slog, slowed down by corporate obstacles, spiked by saboteurs and smothered by indifference. But I’m not sure this is any worse now than it has ever been.”

So why the despair?

First is the sadly common mistake of mixing the terms innovation, entrepreneurialism and creativity. I’d argue these are very different skills and very different mindsets.

There is a pervasive “old world” business approach and mindset to the blog. A lot of the comments refer to creativity taking place in small start-ups that are later bought by the corporate giants and therefore the lack of creativity in those corporations, and hence a passive outsourcing of thinking.

I’ll come back to that point later.

However, most depressing is a focus on a very limited segment of the economy. And here it brings me great pleasure to introduce to you, the creative industries. That’s right, there are business out there that have as their core, as their raison d’etre, a creative purpose. Film making, gaming, television, design and yes….publishing, to name but a few. We, in Britain, are incredibly lucky to have a ridiculously healthy creative industry. And it isn’t small, the creative industries in their entirety are as big, if not bigger, than the financial services sector. We have the biggest creative industry in Europe and, pound for pound, probably the world.

More so, this is an industry that is growing and growing, despite the current economic climate.

Is there a lack of creativity in UK plc? No. Really, no.

Rick and those that commented are talking about one or two specific sectors of the economy, they are confusing entrepreneurial flair and innovation with genuine creativity. The UK economy is thriving with creativity, but it is lacking the focus and investment that other, less profitable and, dare I say it, less future proof industries receive. If Government is serious about growth then it could do far worse than focus on the creative industries as the keystone of recovery.

Now, to come back to the point about passive outsourcing. Business is changing, the face and structure of business is in an evolutionary stage. Small businesses, sole traders, bedroom ventures are all bursting with innovation and entrepreneurial endeavour. Many of them are niche, many of them don’t grow, many of them don’t want to grow and ultimately some of them do sell out to corporate monoliths, before then going on to their next endeavour. Is there anything wrong with that? I honestly don’t think so. That is at the heart of entrepreneurialism.

So, to answer Rick’s question, “Is there a creativity crisis?” No. Are our established corporations designed for entrepreneurial flair and innovation? Also no.

But the two questions are not the same.

Our creative industries are thriving, they are full of truly creative people, not bureaucrats, working to make world-class products and develop leading edge content. They may be quiet, they may sometimes be unseen, but they are an economic force to be reckoned with.

Overlook them at your peril.