What we get wrong about creativity

This issue’s provocateur is Professor Alf Rehn, professor of innovation, design and management at the University of Southern Denmark. In his speaking engagements and his book, Innovation for the Fatigued, Rehn discusses the basics of developing a creativity culture – even in a pandemic.

Why are creativity and innovation comparable to muddling long-term relationships and bad farmers? Here, a professor of innovation explains what we get wrong about these concepts – and how we can get it right.

“We’ve all met the person who likes to say they are a really creative person. And we go: ‘No, you’re not. You’re just annoying.’”

Professor Alf Rehn rarely holds back when talking about his favourite subject. Here’s what we learned in an hour in Rehn’s company.

We have a society which rewards creativity and which reveres innovation.
Would you like to work in a creative workplace? It’s very difficult to answer no to that question because who wants to live their life in some kind of Kafkaesque bureaucracy hell. But what does it really mean? A creative workspace can be one where there’s constant challenge, where there are lots of ideas. When a boss comes to the workplace and says: “We have to become more innovative,” I get hives. Without meaning, they’re just words.

They want to feel that what they’re doing is actually creating something greater than themselves and not just changing the icing on the muffin.

That’s often what happens. They see that innovation is what somebody else gets to do: “I’m too old,” “I’m not in the right department,” “I’m too female.” Lots of things can make you feel that you’re not allowed
to be part of the creative crew.

We need to create a little friction – not too much – that can hone an original, somewhat dull and lifeless idea into something sharp and sparkly.
We human beings are a little weird because we are either think that there should be no critique or there should be all critique. You’ve been listened to; you’re engaged with on a human-to-human basis. If no one follows up with points, you will realise that you’re being patronised.

Leaders need to be much more like farmers.
A farmer who just yells at his seeds to grow, will not succeed. He can stand there on the field and shout all day long, if that’s what he’s into doing. That’s not going to change anything. The farmer who starts by making sure that the soil is of the right kind, making sure that the seeds are planted not too far apart, but not too close either; who provides the seeds with manure and water and sunlight; who tends to the soil much more than they shout at it, will see their seeds bloom faster or grow quicker. And yet that is how we engage with innovation. We shout and we demand and we bring in high price consultants and draw lots of really weird looking flow charts. But that’s not where innovation comes from.

Innovation comes from there being a culture in which ideas are appreciated, but also debated; critique is a great thing for innovation and culture as well.

We’ve got stuck in a rut.
I speak to organisations and I can see that light is starting to go out of people’s eyes. They tell me that people like me (consultants) normally come at the same time every year. There was almost a schedule to how innovation engagements were run in organisations. In the end they were fatigued by it all. Just like in a relationship, even the most wonderful thing can become fatiguing if it becomes just an empty ritual. It’s wonderful if you bring flowers to your partner, but if every Thursday you mechanically bring a bouquet of flowers and you start dumping them on the table, you will take something away from what was originally a beautiful gesture. If innovation consultants come and run a workshop every six months, people will realise that it isn’t meaningful.

Sometimes, hindering innovation can have an invigorating effect.
One CEO I knew who forbid the internal use of the term innovation in his company. This CEO instituted a moratorium for a period, stopping innovation projects.

I was observing this close hand. At first people said: “This is the death of the company,” but he held fast and something quite magical happened. All those people in the organisation – for whom innovation didn’t resonate – felt freed. They could go about just doing the wrong thing. They didn’t have to sit in on workshops and seminars and meetings that they felt were ‘innovation theatres’. And they did stuff like whittling down their inboxes and sorting out stuff that should have been sorted out ages ago, and actually felt inspired. And those who’d loved innovation started saying:

“I’m going to show him once the moratorium is over.” When the moratorium was over, not only did those who really burned for change and innovation come out stronger than ever before, so did the people who previously didn’t care for innovation. They started engaging again because all of a sudden they had the energy. They felt now that we’re starting on an even keel. It seems illogical that having a moratorium on innovation could create more innovation, but I saw it in action.

Creativity is also hard, time-consuming work.
One resource that companies seem to have a hard time of letting go of is time. If I ask an organisation how easy it is for somebody to take a day off to work on their idea, they look at me as if I’ve said something horrendous about their partner. Essentially, ideas take no resource at all except time.

One of the things I see people fail with in creativity is the fact that they imagine that there is this creativity fairy, and if they believe, creative ideas can just come to them. Boom.

Whereas I know that working with artists, working with inventors, working with business people, I see the sweat and the toil and the really terrible prototypes and the sketches that never went anywhere. We need to do more ‘bad work’, in that we need to be prepared to write or think, even though we’re not feeling perfectly in the mood.

Most of the things that we truly know about creativity, we’ve known for a hundred years. It’s things like you need to take breaks. You need diversity. Sometimes creativity pops up when you least expect it. Having proper background research is still good. We might put different examples on it, but the basics we’ve known for 100 years. And why am I cross about this? Because you’d think that after a hundred years, I wouldn’t have to go up to CEOs and say, you know what? You need more diversity on your teams, and they tell me to prove it. We’ve proven it a hundred thousand times over. It is fact; it is the natural law of creativity – diversity and diverse perspectives improve ideas. This should be as well-known as the law of gravity.

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