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In corporate world, creativity remains an uphill struggle, study suggests

September 1, 2012

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , 212-233-6170, hhaimowitz@aol.com

Millennials may find the reality today not too different from what it was in the era of the "organization man"


Almost 50 years ago, when the notion of executives as "organization men" still held sway, an article in the Harvard Business Review by its former editor took a decidedly dim view of creativity in corporate ranks. While conceding that "without creativity and innovation [organizations] would perish," Harvard Business School's legendary Theodore Levitt nevertheless insisted that "the purpose of organization is to achieve the...order and conformity necessary to do a particular job...Creativity and innovation disturb that order."

Have corporate attitudes to creativity changed? By all appearances, yes. In the words one business pundit, "These days there's hardly a mission statement that doesn't herald it or a CEO who doesn't laud it."

Yet, new research suggests that creativity remains an uphill slog in the corporate world. A study in the new issue of the Academy of Management Journal finds that, even when creative individuals are skilled networkers highly motivated to put their ideas to work, their chances of doing so are no better than that of colleagues whose imaginations are limited to the minimally incremental.

And if networking skills and incentives to advance ideas are lacking, the likelihood that creative individuals will see their ideas implemented is slim-to-none, far less than would be the case for relatively unimaginative co-workers.

In the words of the study, by Markus Baer of the Olin Business School at Washington University of St. Louis, "Although there may be forces in the organization that promote the implementation of creative ideas (e.g., organizational mandate to be creative), the very nature of these ideas is likely to generate reluctance to their implementation."

The study concludes that "the odds of implementing creative ideas can be rather small," as managers "focus their efforts on contributions of lower creativity due to the potential for more highly creative ideas to cause conflict and create disruptions." Further, "organizations and managers need to be aware that some of their potentially most productive ideas may never be realized and that this may be due to social-political dynamics rather than issues related to the idea itself."

In sum, "the results of this study suggest that the implementation of creative ideas is a fragile endeavor." Or, put another way, "unless actors are motivated to push for the realization of their ideas and skilled at developing strong 'buy-in' relationships, creativity is likely to be squelched."

Asked to elaborate, Prof. Baer adds: "While companies almost universally pay lip service to the notion of fostering creativity, the reality today may not be all that different from what it was in the era of the organization man. Of course, there are companies, like Apple and Google, for whom creativity is the very essence of their organizational identities. But in most of the corporate world, including the major corporation I studied in this paper, seeing novel ideas through to implementation is a considerable challenge, requiring motivational drive and social skills that creative people do not necessarily have.

"Whether this will continue to be the case with the coming of the millennial generation or post-millennial generations remains to be seen. According to a much-cited survey released earlier this year, 83 per cent of millennials say they are looking for jobs where their creativity is valued. Whether most of them will find such positions in the corporate world as it exists today is another matter."

For insight into the status of creativity in this world, Prof. Baer surveyed 216 employees and 87 of their supervisors in one of America's largest corporations, a global agricultural-processing firm. The sample included participants not only from research and development but from a range of other departments, including accounting, finance, and processing. Employees were questioned about the following:

  • their creativity: for example, to what extent during the past year they "developed breakthrough ideas -- not minor changes to existing products/services"
  • their implementation incentives: to what extent an idea's implementation brought such gains as a bonus or raise, recognition, a promotion, increased job freedom
  • their networking ability: how employees rated themselves on such skills as "using my connections and networks to make things happen at work" or "developing a large network of colleagues and associates at work whom I can call on for support when I really need to get things done"
  • their strong ties: specific people they could call on for support and what their relationship was with each, ranging from "acquaintance" to "very close colleague."

Supervisors, for their part, were asked to rate employees on implementation -- how frequently their ideas were (1) approved for further development, (2) transformed into usable products, processes or procedures, and (3) successfully brought to market or successfully implemented at the company.

Baer found that whether ideas gained traction or not had little to do with how creative they were but that prospects for innovative proposals were "least negative" when the employees who conceived them "were both motivated and skilled at crafting effective social relationships."

The professor sees lessons for both rank-and-file employees and managers in the study's findings. "Employees," he says, "can avoid a lot of frustration simply by realizing something not always obvious to creative people -- namely that in the corporate world the quality of ideas is no guarantee they will be implemented. Equally important is the ability to seek out positions and situations that reward one's creativity and to build a network of mentors and co-workers, the more varied the better, who can be enlisted in support of one's ideas.

"For managers," he continues, "one key lesson is how easy it is for productive ideas to slip by. A second is the importance of establishing a systematic approach to acknowledging and rewarding employees' implementation efforts. Still another lesson is the benefit in selecting staff with networking skills or the potential to develop them."

The study, "Putting Creativity to Work: The Implementation of Creative Ideas in Organizations," is in the October issue of the The Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with more than 19,000 members in 110 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the The Academy of Management Review, The Academy of Management Perspectives, andAcademy of Management Learning and Education.

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