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.

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.

Ordinary leads to ordinary

One of the biggest problems within the HR profession, is a lack of innovation. By this I don’t mean harebrained schemes dreamed up in those horrible “away days” that come to nothing, or worse, that actually come to something…….pointless. I mean true innovation. The creation of new and different ways of thinking about situations, and the definition of exciting future realities.

Why?

Because we worry too much about “the practicalities”. The moment that anyone starts to suggest ideas, to progress thoughts that are maybe slightly out of the everyday is also the moment that others start to provide reasons why it wouldn’t be possible.

Because we have to deal with practicalities right? We have to take into account the reality?

Yes. And no.

You see the problem with staying rooted to the practicalities is that you are anchoring your reality to the now, to the understood and known and therefore any solution you pitch will also fall into the understood and the known. It won’t be a game changer, it won’t radically alter anything. It will be humdrum.

When you frame your thinking in the ordinary, your solutions will be ordinary.

Now I know that at this point people will start telling me that there have been innovative solutions for mundane problems. Think Velcro, think Tippex, think Elastoplast. But innovation that shifts our paradigm does so because it pays no account to practicalities….it redefines them.

Think the internet. Think the steam engine. Think the transistor.

These are not answers to problems; these are enhancements to society. If we accept the workplace is a community, then we too should be striving for innovative enhancements rather than tactical solutions. Not every idea that we ever come up with will fly, but if we stop worrying about the here and the now and start defining the future, we’re more likely to find a shining jewel.

Practicality is the enemy of innovation.