Making Creativity Come True

What does it take to turn a creative idea into reality? It seems like a simple question, but truly creative ideas are tricky critters: they don’t fit well with existing ways of doing things, they create conflicts between people, and they can even cause companies to go under. And the worst part is, truly creative ideas usually fail. After all, it’s their novelty and uniqueness that make them creative in the first place, so it’s no surprise that they don’t always work. Companies (and people) famously abhor change for exactly these reasons. Sure, that idea sounds great – why don’t YOU try it out and let me know how it goes?

So what makes a particular creative idea likely to be implemented, and when are you likely to be able to see your idea turn into reality? A new study by Markus Baer of Washington University in St. Louis asks exactly that. The motivation for his research, which appears in October’s Academy of Management Journal, is the observation that people and companies generate far more ideas than they actually implement, and that it isn’t the most creative or best ideas that usually filter to the top. After all, we all remember Windows ME and the KFC Doubledown (okay, maybe that one was pretty good).

Here’s the punchline: Baer finds that ideas are most likely to be implemented when the people pushing from them are motivated (i.e., they believe in the idea) and when they have strong networks of peers and supervisors. No surprise there. What’s interesting is how the variables all come together. When an idea is particularly creative, the person pushing it has to really believe in it in order to see it realized. On the other hand, if they have strong support from their peers and supervisors, personal motivation doesn’t matter too much: even far-out and risky ideas are likely to be implemented, even when the person who came up with it doesn’t see a ton of value in pushing it forward.

The upshot is that the value of the idea might not be as important as how everyone in the company perceives it. The best ideas might not see the light of day simply because they never found the right advocates, and mediocre ideas might make it all the way to the top just because they don’t rile too many feathers along the way. So next time you’re wondering how the Back-Up Bedside Gun Rack (“Reach your shotgun from the comfort of your bed!”) made it to market, just remember: they probably had other ideas too.

And ’cause it would be too good not to share, here’s the Huffington Post’s compendium of the Stupidest Products Ever. Enjoy.

Yet Another Excuse to Cut Out Early

In the mood to start your weekend early? It might not be a bad idea, according to an article in Sunday’s New York Times by Jason Fried, the co-founder and CEO of a Chicago-based software company called 37signals. In it, he discusses two experiments that his firm has used to improve creativity and productivity:

1. During the summer, the company runs on a four-day workweek. Rather than cram forty hours into four days, they actually switch to a 32-hour workweek. This creates helpful pressure without introducing creativity-crushing stress, just as we discussed in earlier posts (Creativity Under the Gun and You Should Go Home Early Today).

2. Every June, employees use their non-essential time to explore projects and ideas of their own. As Keith Sawyer points out in his excellent blog “Creativity and Innovation“, this is actually a technique commonly used at companies like Google (20% time) and W. L. Gore (dabble time). The practice dates back to 3M, which initiated “15% time” as early as the 1940s. The basic idea, as always, is to encourage divergent thinking and allow employees to find the products that might become the next big thing.

It’s a short article, but it’s exciting to hear about companies that are exploring creative new ways to get work done. Creativity may not be a primary consideration in every profession, but I wouldn’t mind seeing our society place a greater emphasis on those in which it is. After all, taupe walls and square lines survived through a period of amazing economic growth and revolutionary innovation over the past half century, but it’s arguable whether those environments have been good for the people in them. The same holds for the length of the American workweek, which has been climbing steadily over the past decades and is now one of the longest in the world. Three cheers for the managers that see happy and healthy employees as a key part of a healthy (and creative) company.

Check out Jason’s op-ed at NYTimes, and thanks to Keith Sawyer for tipping me off.

What is Management, Anyway?

In the grand scheme, the goal of academic research is to advance the state of human knowledge. While this necessarily entails diving into some fairly esoteric weeds, I won’t pretend that management scholars have it too tough in that regard (at least compared to chemistry). At the same time, our field is somewhat unique in that few people know what it actually means to study management (at least beyond an MBA). For years, people have been asking “so, you’re getting a PhD in how to make money?

That’s a fair question, but pursuing a PhD isn’t usually a ticket to fame and riches. Instead, academic research in management explores topics such as innovation, entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, and strategy. And because you’re now thinking, “those don’t really sound like real scientific pursuits either,” it’s probably worth digging a bit deeper.

The field has its roots in economics and sociology. Adam Smith was writing in the late 1700s, and sociologists such as Max Weber in the late 1800s, but management didn’t really emerge as a discipline until the early 1900s. Around that time, Chester Barnard drew on his experience at AT&T to lay out a comprehensive theory of how organizations and executives behaved, and Frederick Winslow Taylor began conducting rigorous comparisons of various production systems. The first dedicated MBA was offered in 1921 at Harvard, at which point scholars and practitioners were interested largely in how to effectively and profitably manage businesses. As time passed, however, the field expanded and evolved: scholars began to explore how organizations change and adapt to their environments (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967), what makes industries different and firms successful (Porter, 1980; Barney, 1991), and how organizations learn, interact, and grow (Henderson & Clark, 1990; DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; March, 1991). Today, the field covers innumerable topics from the role of cognition in decision-making to the structure of social movements to the origins of creativity. And while I know some of CRTVTY’s readers are far more qualified than I to describe the formal boundaries of the field, that’s a good summary of what our work is all about.

The big question is, why does any of it matter? Fundamentally, all of these topics relate to how the building blocks of the human world (economies, societies, and technologies) grow and change. Management scholars want to understand why the world we live in looks as it does: why is Silicon Valley such an innovative powerhouse, why do analog watches still exist, why did the wind industry take off but solar didn’t, and why do people make better decisions when they’re given less time to think? By examining those “little” questions, we are slowly shining a light onto more fundamental issues regarding our economy and society. My research, for instance, is motivated by a desire to understand how new industries and technologies come to be, so I’m exploring how electric vehicle companies collaborate with their partners and decide which products to build. My coworkers study topics as diverse as what makes government-sponsored science parks effective, how entrepreneurs identify opportunities, and how social movements have shaped the history of the biodiesel industry. All in all, it’s pretty fascinating stuff, and offers a lot of promise for shaping the world around us by creating dynamic economies, relevant technologies, and successful businesses. Or, of course, for making money.