Nine common mistakes leaders make about creativity and innovation

Paul Sloane busts a few innovation myths. 

Surveys show that leaders of organisations both large and small rate innovation as essential for their survival and success. Yet most are unhappy with their current progress in this area. They are frustrated that they cannot implement new products, services and methods as often or as quickly as they would like.

Part of the problem is that leaders misunderstand the first requirement of innovation – creative ideas. Here are some mistakes, myths and misconceptions which are common among leaders.

  1. Only a handful of gifted people are truly creative. After all, there was only one Beethoven. But there are millions of songwriters around today. Their work is nowhere near the standard of Beethoven’s but they produce plenty of good and popular songs. It is the same with people. Everyone is creative as a child and they can be again if given the right encouragement and help.
  2. You cannot train people to be creative. Yes you can. It is true that some people are more imaginative than others but everyone can be trained in lateral thinking and creativity techniques. You can unleash the creative powers of all your people if you put the right programmes and environment in place.
  3. It is the job of the executive team to come up with important ideas and strategies to lead the business. It is a sign of weakness to ask for help with this. It is the job of the leadership team to lead, to choose between different options and to give clear direction. However, they can still ask for input on a whole range of important issues and have mixed teams come up with suggestions for ways to improve the business and move it forward. To ask for help is not a sign of weakness – it is a sign of being open-minded.
  4. Brainstorms are old hat and ineffective. Badly-run brainstorm meetings are ineffective, agreed. But a well facilitated brainstorm with a clear focus remains a great way to generate and select powerful innovative ideas. People can be trained to become skilled facilitators.
  5. The brainstorm meeting should be run by the department head; they understand what can and cannot be done. The boss is generally the worst person to run an ideation meeting. Their very presence in the room can inhibit people from voicing heretical or radical ideas. But these are what you want in the brainstorm. It is difficult for bosses to stop themselves from shaping the discussion and turning the brainstorm meeting back into a normal meeting where we discuss conventional ideas.
  6. Bad ideas should be shot down quickly so as to save time. Every truly radical idea initially looks absurd. It is easy to for experienced, intelligent, senior people to find fault with ingenious concepts when they are first expressed. We have to suspend judgement and explore inventive ideas to see where they lead.
  7. It is very risky to let people try new things. They should follow standard company procedures and every change should go through a proper approval process. This is a very old-fashioned approach and we can see many examples of successful modern companies where front-line staff are empowered to try new initiatives if they think it is better for the business. It does involve risk but it unleashes powerful innovation forces among the staff who are closest to the action. John Timpson, chairman, of the Timpson group is a leading advocate of ‘upside-down management’ where staff in the shops are empowered to make all manner of decisions. If you have employed good people then you should trust them to do what is best for the business. Trust but verify.
  8. We should hire people who fit in and get on well with the team. There is considerable evidence that homogeneous teams are less creative than diverse teams. And that happy teams are less creative than teams where there is some (but not too much) contention. It is a fallacy to hire people who will ‘fit in’. Every group needs some mavericks who will challenge the current thinking.
  9. We should discourage failure. It is bad for the business and our reputation. Innovation involves trying things that don’t work. We need to try lots of new things and test them quickly in the market. We can stop the projects that don’t succeed but we have to keep trying. The Amazon Fire was a failure but it has not harmed Amazon’s reputation at all.

To lead an innovative organisation you have to let go. You set the vision and direction but ask for help. You give people time and money to experiment. You harness the untapped power of your people’s imaginations and entrepreneurial energies.


About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking (3rd Edition) published by Kogan Page. 


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