Innovative companies need creative minds. But while some employees are bubbling with ideas, others rarely experience a stroke of genius. That is why researchers and companies are looking for answers to the question: how can creativity be promoted?A large number of streets around De Anza College in the Californian city of Cupertino are cordoned off. Security personnel are using barriers to keep onlookers at a distance. There are broadcasting vans parked on the premises which belong to television crews and have come from around the world to Silicon Valley. 2,500 guests and media representatives fill the university's auditorium, waiting for Tim Cook to arrive. What revolutionary technological gadget will the head of Apple present today? Finally, Tim Cook takes to the stage and says something unbelievable: “Hello. I'm sorry, but this time we have don't have a new product to present to you. We simply couldn't think of anything new. Goodbye”. The audience is speechless: The most creative and most valuable company in the world could not come up with a single idea.
But this scenario is likely never to occur because companies operating in a market economy cannot afford a creative standstill. Their survival depends on them constantly generating new ideas, products and services. For only those that introduce an innovation to the market first can enjoy a competitive advantage. No surprise then that a survey by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that innovation was the top priority for 80 percent of the companies worldwide. But how can creativity in a company be promoted? And what is creativity anyway? Economists, psychologists and sociologists involved in the young subject area “Corporate Creativity” are searching for answers. Rainer Holm-Hadulla, a creativity researcher at Heidelberg University, has a minimum definition: creativity is a new combination of information. You need knowledge in order to be creative. The greater the knowledge, the more play material. But this in itself is not helpful. One also requires the freedom in which existing knowledge hierarchies can continue to develop.
Free spirits preferred
Companies where a true creative culture has developed can be found, for example, in the BCG ranking of the “Most Innovative Companies 2014”: Apple has held the top spot for ten years running, followed by Google and Samsung. The top 50 include a who-is-who of globally successful corporations including automakers such as Toyota and BMW, conglomerates such as Siemens and General Electric as well as representatives from the food and beverage sector such as Coca-Cola and Starbucks. According to Professor Peter Kruse, an organizational psychologist at the University of Bremen, innovative companies have one thing in common across all sectors: “They do not try to dictate a culture of creativity. You cannot coerce culture and creativity. Instead, they create conditions within their system in which something creative can, but does not have to, emerge”. In the case of Google, this means: every employee can dedicate 20 percent of their working hours to work to their own projects, and they can decide when to take this timeout. And what other companies would consider to be a loss of productivity is apparently profitable for Google: According to the company, 50 percent of its products are based on ideas developed during the timeout phase. The fact is that creativity knows no rigid working hours. “Ultimately, it makes no difference if an idea is triggered at the office desk, while mowing the lawn or looking out of a train window,” says Susanne Tiedemann, industrial psychologist at TÜV Rheinland. “What is important is freeing oneself from a problem – mentally and spatially. Distraction and the art of lleisure foster creativity, and it's not wasted time.”
Creativity loves limitation
But a creative corporate culture must also include setting limitations for creativity. At first glance, this appears rather contradictory. Lower rather than increased budget, shorter rather than longer deadlines, smaller rather than larger teams. Frugality and limitations force employees to come up with new solutions. However, management must set the right limitations wisely; they should stimulate creativity, not stifle it.
Who dares, wins
The fact is that creativity is hard work. It's not enough to simply let your imagination run wild – a stroke of genius rarely comes from out of the blue. Diligence, professional expertise, curiosity and openness are important characteristics among creative people. Having the courage to fail is another. “Innovative companies promote the willingness to take risks,” says Susanne Tiedemann. Only those who are allowed to make mistakes feel free enough to break out of prescribed thought patterns and processes. This willingness to take risks can be nurtured. For example, the Indian Tata Group offers an unusual employee award every year entitled: “Dare to Try!” The award honors the employee who pursued a promising idea, but was ultimately denied success. The message: You are allowed to fail, after all you can learn from this. For Mike Lazaridis, one of the founders of BlackBerry, failure is a key to success: “In nine out of ten cases, we come up with wonderful features which can't be implemented. However: without the nine ideas that failed there would not be the tenth idea that worked.”
Creation requires destruction
And whether a good idea ultimately leads to the creation of a successful product is also a matter of chance. And this can be jump-started. Creativity is provoked when companies network employees from different disciplines, departments and cultures, says Professor Peter Kruse: “If a German works together with a Chinese, they will hopefully irritate each other on a cultural level to the point that this tension will result in something new and unexpected. Creative processes are more likely to develop where an existing system experiences turmoil. Creativity requires destruction – harmony is rarely helpful.” His advice for entrepreneurs whose innovations are stifled: “Allow interferers and give unconventional thinkers a chance!