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Nigel Paine

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The creative challenge


While many organisations crave creativity in their workforce, a fear of failure means that few really foster the conditions to encourage it. Nigel Paine assesses how to develop a culture where innovation can thrive.

It was the tenth anniversary, recently, of the publication of Ken Robinson’s  report on creativity, education and the economy:  All Our Futures:  Creativity, Culture and Education which the new Labour government had commissioned in 1998 and which was published to great acclaim the following year.

Sir Ken took the time to make speeches commenting on the ten years since publication.  He was not, however, celebrating a decade of fantastic achievement and transformation, but berating the government for doing so little to fundamentally change education to make learning more creative, or to value creativity in the curriculum and the classroom.  In those ten years, Ken Robinson has left the UK and set up shop on the west coast of the US and is almost better known there than here.  He is involved in a big state-wide project to drive innovation in Oklahoma called the Oklahoma Creativity Project and was honoured recently by the state of Pennsylvania where he was given the Governor’s Award for the Arts.

Starting point
If what he says is true in schools, then he has a double point in the workplace.  And who is in charge of learning there?  Is it all down to a bunch of learning leaders who do not ‘get’ or accept Robinson’s message?  I don’t think so.  The key message about innovation in the workplace is that getting people to have great ideas is only the starting point.  A culture of creativity, requires a string of fundamental changes in workplace culture; and until they are in place, the learning leader can stimulate and encourage innovation all he or she likes, but the net impact will be minimal or even counter-productive.

"If there is a culture that stigmatises any mistakes and black-lists the people that make them, it is impossible to build creativity and innovation into the work processes."

Let’s look at a few of those.  The first is accepting that creative ideas can sometimes lead us in the wrong direction.  If there is a culture that stigmatizes any mistakes and black-lists the people that make them, it is impossible to build creativity and innovation into the work processes. If doing nothing is always a safer bet than doing something new, you can bet the way the vast majority of people will jump.

Choose the best
Secondly you need some way of evaluating ideas, so you run with the best.  This is both a process for developing those ideas, and for implementing them. Some of it is a mundane allocation of some kind of budget to take risks, but a lot is about the procedures to take the right things forward with the most appropriate risk associated with them.

The third thing is diversity.  Nothing much new occurs if everyone thinks the same thing, or if a strong hierarchy dictates whose views are listened to and whose views are ignored. Or any kind of creative challenge is frowned upon, or slapped down.

I remember working in an organisation where we had ‘brainstorms’ as a team.  The team leader would introduce the topic and then ask us for our ideas which would be written up on a flip chart.  When we had finished, he would stand up and announce his ideas and write them up on a clean sheet of flip-chart paper.  Have a guess at which ideas we ran with as a team?  These so-called creative occasions were a nightmare for most participants.

Another boss responded, in a staff meeting,  to someone who put forward some mildly challenging suggestions in a positive way:  “Next time you want to crucify me, bring a cross.”   The staff member in question left shortly afterwards.

Supporting innovation

Once the decision has been taken to encourage innovation, the processes have to be put in place to support it and the values have to be made explicit to make it work. At that point there is a brilliant opportunity for the learning leader to intervene and  provide the tools, and competences, to make it happen.  But this, like most culture change, is a slow burn.  It requires a long-term commitment that is not scrapped the first time there is a minor budget crisis.

If you want to get it moving in your organisation, then do the following ten things:

  1. Set realistic goals and targets.
  2. See what others are doing and work out the strengths of their approach.
  3. Have a complete solution that is about hearts and minds, but is also about processes and budgets.
  4. Work out how you will deal with the ideas that are not taken forward and the teams or individuals that originated them.
  5. Make this a team process.  An individual’s idea is rarely so good that some additional contributions cannot add massive value.
  6. Emphasise that the person whose idea it was, need not be the individual to take it forward.
  7. Try to ensure that all ideas go to the most appropriate parts of the organisation, and the ‘not invented here’ syndrome does not predominate.
  8. Reward success.
  9. Tell everyone about what has worked, big and small.
  10. Avoid punishing failure; but also develop processes that detect when to abort.  The earlier in the process, the less risk and cost.

And finally remember that there is huge value in ideas, but to turn ideas into business success requires a lot of hard (often) unglamorous work.  Reward is shared amongst the whole team not just the originator.

The starting point, in spite of everything I have written above is, however, reflect for a bit on what success would look like in your organisation and what would have to change to sustain that success. Set your targets and benchmarks so you know when you have got there, and what you are doing is appropriate to the nature of your business.

Nigel Paine is a speaker, writer and coach specialising in helping organisations get the best out of their people.  You can check him out at

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