In corporate world, creativity remains an uphill struggle, study suggests
September 1, 2012
For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , 212-233-6170, firstname.lastname@example.org
Millennials may find the reality today not too
different from what it was in the era of the "organization
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
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
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
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.