Creativity – does it die from structure?

The creative era

Most people would agree that creativity is the mother of innovation. We have entered the creative era, where the ability to innovate and constantly adapt to change will determine our chances of success. Since innovation is high on most companies’ agenda we are often involved in conversations about how innovation can be professionalized, in similar ways Project Management or Lean has been. In those discussions a common remark is:

“Structure and systems will stifle creativity, instead we should allow people the freedom to be innovative”.

We agree that freedom to try ideas does stimulate creative solutions. But we consider the notion that “professionalizing innovation would stifle creativity” to be an orthodoxy, which could prevent a company to mobilize creative forces across their organization in pursuit of growth.

Don’t get me wrong, innovation built on inflexible systems and processes will result in failure. But any person engaged in innovation needs more than just freedom. To be creative we all need knowledge, tools and the skills to apply them.

Unleashing innovation

Think of a writer, one of the most creative professions. Writers train their observation skills in finding inspiration for a story, research to find data and knowhow that will make the story and its characters believable. They hone their ability to tell the story in ways that make it come to life, escape from the page of a book stimulating the reader’s imagination.

So for creativity to generate actionable results, individuals and organizations need to learn to use tools and build support for both the creative process itself and realizing ideas that are generated. Creativity feeds innovation and the more creative power a company has the better the chances for success. Gary Hamel talks about the need to create organizations with values, beliefs and behaviors where people are willing to “bring their gift of creativity and passion to work every day”(1). Creative power is often demonstrated by those who are already creative (people who can’t help it but constantly turn out ideas), but ideally we want to give everybody in the company a chance to apply their creativity in order to keep us agile and resilient. Companies that are successful innovators like Google are able to engage a majority of their employees to be creative thinkers and doers (2). Such companies have overcome the “creative apartheid” (3) as Gary Hamel calls it.

Professionalizing innovation

Everyone can be engaged in creatively developing new products, ways of working, services and solutions and we argue that to accomplish this an organization needs to put into place a number of structures including systems and processes. Google, Whirlpool (4), Gore and Ericsson (5) are all examples of how professionalizing innovation will support a broader engagement of the employees in developing the business. But rigidity in process and structure will be counter productive, there is no ‘silver bullet’ or a ‘blueprint’ to copy. Every company will have their own set of tools to apply depending on their particular culture. However, we find that as a base line the following needs to be addressed:

  1. Purpose

What makes you get out of bed in the morning full of energy to deliver value to your company? And how do you inspire your people to do the same?

We find that a clear purpose for the company, describing how we aim to positively impact our customers and change the way we compete, will engage your people at a more emotional level and therefore be more effective than just targets around finance and size. Think about the power of Google’s purpose – “Organize the worlds information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Now add, “Don’t be evil” and you have a compelling story to share with your people and the world. Compare that to “Being the number one search engine on the web”. Which one would you get out of bed for in the morning?

  1. Inspiration

A colleague responsible for innovation in a major international company once asked me; “What would be the number one thing your recommend me to do differently in order to achieve better results from innovation?” My advice was “Get out of your office and spend time in the real world with your customers and consumers”. We will never deliver products that change the lives of people without knowing and becoming inspired by a deeper understanding of their problems and frustrations. Nor will we catch shifts in markets by just reading reports compiled by others.

In developing strategy and innovation our starting point is the creation of inspiring insights about customer needs, shifts in the market, developments in technology, and orthodoxies that control behaviors and decisions. This initial Discovery phase is about finding information that is unexpected and new.

When Crayola sought a way out of a commoditized crayon market, they started by seeking inspiration. The insights they discovered fundamentally changed their company, from being focused on selling high quality crayons to parents to understanding the underlying, unarticulated needs of both parents and children. This allowed them to shift focus from a purely functional perspective on color and sticks to an application of creativity, learning and play. The result was dramatic, creating a whole new segment of products, ultimately delivering double-digit growth.

  1. Tools and systems

If all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. To deliver results, creators need proper tools and develop the skills to apply them through practice. As Arnold Palmer once said, after someone commented on how lucky he was to have sunk a difficult shot; “It’s a funny thing, the more I train the luckier I get”.

Our discovery process is a structured way supported by tools, methods and training that help generate proprietary insights to inspire creativity. We gradually develop internal capability through on the job training, exposing people to specific tools they need. It is important that many people are engaged in the innovation process to embed capability and allow for greater diversity of input. An approach that has proven to be successful at Whirlpool is to train a group of Innovation Mentors or Coaches who have the responsibility to support their colleagues in the organization.

  1. Leadership

The leaders of an organization play a key role in supporting and influencing creativity and innovation. How you as a leader behave will reflect what people think is acceptable. As a leader you have many levers to pull but it all starts with whom you recruit. The choices you make about whom to work with signals how open the organization is to diversity and what is acceptable behaviour.

We all understand that the daily job needs to get done. But empowering people to actively participate in challenging the status quo and allowing them to experiment with ideas will create engagement.

Again, Google is an inspiring example of how this can be done. But the discipline of Management Innovation is catching interest from leaders, fast. To explore more, take a look at, Gary Hamel’s open innovation project aimed at re-inventing management.

  1. Governance

Nothing kills creativity faster than failing to realize promising ideas. A Governance structure provides resources and funding to allow experimentation and early exploration of new opportunities. If you are organized and ready to support ideas more people are willing to offer you their ideas, not only from inside your organization but also from external sources. We often work with clients to institutionalize I-Boards that act as catalysts of ideas. We helped KT in South Korea to develop their governance system for innovation and their I-Board included the leaders of all the major business units in the group. They were encouraged to invest from their budget in projects presented to the I-Board by employees.

People will unleash their creativity when they are empowered to do so. That implies they have permission as well as the tools and infrastructure to help them. It is our role, as leaders and consultants to design, deliver and empower the use of these tools and structures so that the pool of creativity that exist in our organizations can be fully leveraged and turned into solutions for the benefit of your customers. That makes a truly exiting day and one to get out of bed for!


(1): Reinventing management for the 21st century, Gary Hamel, MIX video

(2): The Google Model, Annika Steiber, 2014

(3): The Future of Management, Gary Hamel, 2007

(4): Unleashing Innovation, Nancy Tennant Snyder, 2008

(5): Everyone innovates everyday, Magnus Karlsson


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