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Leveraging Creativity and Innovation

Originally published on October 18, 2016

This is 15th in a Blog series on Executive Management

Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things. — Theodore Levitt

A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man’s brow. — Charles Brower

There is a point in the life of every organization when change becomes imperative. Not change for the sake of change, but for the very survival of the organization. A changing political environment, mission requirements, technological advances, personnel considerations and a host of other factors can necessitate or exact change. The organization that does not view change as being inevitable, embracing and leading it, is destined for demise, marginalization, failure and eventually extinction (Gibson, 2005). 

Recognizing Barriers

Depending on the place your work, any number of different potential barriers to creativity may exist. As a result, the barriers to creativity also adversely affect innovation—the two walk hand-in-hand. Gibson (2005) identified the following as common barriers to creativity:

  • Fear

  • Poor leadership and commitment to innovation

  • Bureaucratic policies and red tape

  • Silos and turfs

  • Pressure to produce immediate results

  • Personal biases: beliefs, attitudes and values

Fear. Fear is the number one barrier to creativity and innovation identified by most of my colleagues within the organization. Fear of failure. Fear of ridicule. Fear of decision-making. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of taking risks. Fear of not being promoted. Fear of change. Fear of senior leadership. Fear of the unknown.

Fear keeps a person from exploring new ways and enjoying an investigative mindset where failure can be expected and is welcomed as a source of new information and learning. Creativity and innovation are positively associated with joy and love, while negatively associated with fear, anger and anxiety. Young employees learn very quickly that in some organizations, you don’t have to raise your head very high above the ridgeline before it will get it shot off by senior leadership.

Poor leadership and commitment to innovation. If an employee is not given time or encouragement to be creative and innovative, it can almost certainly be guaranteed that new projects and new mechanisms for their delivery will not be born. Nothing new will happen. Much depends and hinges on how senior leadership demonstrates their commitment to creativity and innovation. Too often, the atmosphere becomes poisoned by criticism that fosters insecurity, anger and personal agendas with very little consensus building, collaboration or fun. Senior leadership sometimes fails to realize that what they say and do in this context is more powerful than any speech or policy they may make.

As a leader, how do you respond to new ideas? What is your reaction to ideas that may not have occurred to you? Are you willing to let other people get the recognition and reward for creativity and innovation? Do you really have a passion for doing the job in new and imaginative ways? Are you willing to change personally to make this happen? Are you willing to put your neck on the line to protect an employee who shows inventiveness and initiative? Are you willing to obligate funding to support creativity and innovation? Do you prefer to judge ideas rather than encourage them or generate them yourself?

Bureaucracy, policies and red tape. Bureaucracy, age-old policies and needless red tape can stifle new thinking and fresh approaches. They promote the status quo as the safest response to change, and therefore affect the ability to respond to new information and challenges by devising new responses and procedure). An organization’s mindset, culture and procedures can smother inventiveness to the point that fewer and fewer ideas come forward as the creative mind gives up on navigating bureaucratic obstacles and numerous standard operating procedure).

Silos and Turfs. Individual fiefdoms and acquisition of power can prevent collaboration and experimentation, especially if it involves new ways of working. There is unwillingness on the part of some leaders to share power, responsibility, and reward. Empowerment of others becomes more lip service and there is “no intellectual acceptance of the benefits of creativity” and innovation. Intrinsically, those at the top do not believe creativity and innovation will help the organization or they doubt if it is really needed.

In theory, the organization for which I work encourages middle-management to delegate authority and empower subordinates to think out of the box. But in reality, they reject that practice and foster a system that rewards a senior leader’s micromanagement at the cost of disempowering and stifling the creativity, innovation and individual initiative of their followers.

Pressure to produce immediate results. The unrelenting pressure to produce results immediately, as if there is no tomorrow, often leads to the tyranny of the “either or.” Either be creative and innovative or be productive, producing results. Creativity and innovation are not seen as being relevant unless they can be “summoned on demand and produce short-term results”. People are most creative when they are motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction and challenge of the work itself (intrinsic motivators). Creativity and innovation cannot be ordered. It must be inspired and groomed. It takes time and it must flow from a relaxed atmosphere accentuated with fun.

Personal biases: Beliefs, attitudes and values. Each employee brings a mix of biases from their own belief system or background. This often times leads to a lack of collaboration, disproportionate personal ambition and, in a worst-case scenario, sabotage of coworkers’ efforts and the slandering of their reputations. These biases are subversive and dangerous in that personal motivation and ambition is colored and warped, hindering one’s ability to see things differently. Issues tend to be viewed myopically, creating tunnel vision that fails to see a bigger picture outside of one’s biases.

Breaking Down Barriers

Once the potential barriers to creativity and innovation have been identified, as a leader you must take initiative to revise the workplace environment in such a way that it may foster, encourage, and support creativity and innovation. The methods by which this may be accomplished are as varied as the potential barriers themselves, but may also be influenced by the type of organization, your products/services, and applicable regulations that constrain and restrain your operations. Gibson (2005) suggests the following measures to foster, encourage, and support creativity and innovation in the workplace.

Unleash the creative and innovative capital within your employees.Imagination is a priceless asset that enables an organization to envision better, new and different outcomes. It’s this latent potential that an organization must stimulate and foster if it is going to develop and grow, rather than stagnate and disappear. In short, the right climate is needed for creativity and innovation to flourish within an organizational culture and system whose relevance – and future – is clearly in question.

How can an organization create a climate for creativity and innovation? How can the organization, as a whole, be creative? The key is the human mind. It must be stimulated, excited and nurtured to produce creative thinking. Equally, the mind must be free of creativity and innovation barriers that encumber and impede its ability to fully capitalize on the enormous potential within its grasp that now lies dormant. Unleash your organization’s creativity by incorporating the following guidelines:

Establish a working definition for creativity and innovation. There are many definitions of creativity, but for the purposes of consistency and continuity, creativity would be defined as “seeing what everyone else has seen, but thinking what no one else has thought.” Creativity is about the generation of ideas. The quality and/or quantity of the idea(s) is not the issue. The essence of creativity is to get people to develop ideas, for out of this flow of new ideas comes great innovations for change.

Innovation would be defined as the process of designing and implementing new ideas. It’s possible to have hundreds of creative ideas, but they can only be termed “an innovation” once they’ve been successfully implemented. Given the opportunity to freely express them, leaders, followers, and stakeholders generate ideas that can lead to innovations that will benefit the organization.

Passionately promote an atmosphere within the organization where ideas are valued, considered and, whenever possible, implemented.Over time, this would infuse the organization with a trust, passion and vision for creativity and innovation. Senior leadership must empower all leaders, followers and stakeholders to be creative, setting them free to create while also establishing new structures that reward and encourage new ways of thinking and doing. Time for thinking and being creative must be built into the work schedule. It’s not enough to promote an atmosphere of creativity and innovation and then expect employees to do nothing but work. Creativity and innovation must be seen and prized as a part of an employee’s responsibilities.

Establish innovative metrics that measure the creative and innovative capacity of the organization. What gets measured in the organization gets done! If it is also rewarded, then it is even more likely to get done!

Change your attitude toward creativity and innovation. You must provide leadership and set a positive tone at the top. In most settings, ideas are born drowning, already at risk of dying, and leadership can either stretch out a helping hand to innovative ideas or look the other way. Don’t allow ideas to be “stillborn” for lack of metrics (Abrashoff, 2002). When senior leadership becomes creativity and innovation’s biggest cheerleader, the fear expressed by so many employees will begin to dissipate as they begin to see that new ideas and insight will not be criticized or ignored, but will genuinely be considered and implemented when possible. See yourself as a leader who clears the way for creativity and innovation rather than one who simply maintains the status quo. Infuse within your organization an attitude that it’s OK to have fun!

Ongoing creative thinking and innovation should be strategically programmed into every meeting in which your staff participates. Ask “How many different ways can we look at this issue or problem,” instead of the proverbial “What have we been taught by someone else regarding how to solve this”. Define broad parameters in which your team is allowed to operate, and then get out of the way. This, in itself, allows for true creativity and innovation rather than a regurgitation of what the team thinks the leader wants. 

Give your employees the tools and the training needed for unlocking creativity and innovation. People and learning are fundamental. Courses that provide a few creative tools to a few employees will not ensure that creativity will magically flourish within the entire organization. These opportunities must be available to all employees. In addition to the training, provide a supportive climate that encourages creativity and innovation.

No additional financial resources available for professional development?  Consider redirecting existing training funds or develop a “how to” training and development workshop.  Use current in-house training departments or programs to solicit creative and innovative ideas concerning pending or breaking issues within the organization. This can be done through brainstorming sessions or any other procedure for encouraging creativity, such as mind mapping, theme mapping, making combinations, connecting the unconnected, etc.

Establish a mechanism for the flow of creative ideas up and down the chain of command; a pipeline for the free flow of ideas between leaders and followers. This mechanism allows for a systematic process that incorporates lateral thinking, which in turn speeds up or expands potential ideas that flow from creativity to innovation, providing the organization with an effective means of keeping one eye on the present and the other eye on the future. It tracks promising ideas, while simultaneously spotting emerging trends throughout the organization as it continues to operate in an ever expanding and changing global setting. This will help to turn the most innovative and provocative ideas into reality while keeping the organization on the cutting edge of innovative business practices and delivery well into the future.

Promote and expect an atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation.Organizations are comprised of diverse beliefs, backgrounds, attitudes,and values, which drive behavior. These range from individuals who believe “old dogs can’t learn new tricks” to those who are closed to opposing viewpoints, to those who are willing to cooperate without compromising their beliefs or values. Therefore, promote and expect an atmosphere where collaboration and cooperation are central to the life of your organization. While there will be some who will refuse to be a part of any creativity and innovation processes, the will of the few should not drive the creativity mechanisms within the organization.

Avoid the “quick fix” trap. Most organizations will acknowledge their need to be more creative, and many will be tempted to pursue the “quick fix” option. Some will, no doubt, claim that they’re satisfied with the degree of success found in the status quo, while failing to realize the long-term benefits of developing a strategy that will ensure an ongoing focus on creativity and innovation to sustain their competitive edge and their very existence. Will your organization fall into such a trap?

If your organization is to leverage its creative might to help meet the challenges of remaining a viable and vibrant force within this changing structure, it must first remove the barriers to creativity and innovation that encumber and hinder ideas for new and cutting edge organizational practices. By removing these barriers, your organization will be free to search for opportunities through innovative methods for change, growth,and improvement. In this day and time where change is the only constant, what we do is important, but how we do it is even more important!

Leading Innovation

Let’s put it out there right up front: Leadership is the most important component in innovation. That being said, leading innovation is far different than just coming up with new and creative ideas, only to pass them on to someone else to explore in a silo.

Innovation is creating & implementing something new that adds value.

Innovative Leadership transcends challenges and barriers to enable development and implementation of innovation.

According to Horth and Vehar (2015), three key areas comprise an effective strategic-level approach to leading innovation, as follows:

  1. Navigating the inherent tensions between managing day-to-day business and leading innovation. Obviously, day-to-day operations continue to remain essential, if not also important to organization stability and growth; however, a balance must be struck between managing those activities and thinking of new opportunities, whether it be products, services, or even restructuring the hierarchy of your organization. Unfortunately, many times great, innovative ideas are ignored because of the pressure of short-term needs and objectives, often because organizations view part of their management of the bottom line as being how well they manage staff size to limit unnecessary spending. But, lead and managed properly, operations and innovation can not only be achieved simultaneously but also be complementary at times.

  2. Embracing the constancy of change and remaining agile. First things first—remaining agile does not mean that you have to run out and get Scrum and Agile certification training for your people; it is referring to how you operate, not a project management philosophy. One thing that make innovation challenging is that your people and organization are experiencing change at some level fairly regularly, especially if you are a customer-facing organization. In order to add innovation to the changes that may happen as a matter of conducting operations, the leader must be agile—meaning flexible and adaptable. While trying to simply maintain the status quo is an unacceptable measure to sustain an organization, there is no cookie-cutter solution or blueprint for implementing innovation; however, the one point that stands out is that innovation is not—and cannot become—routine. Innovation is virtually the antithesis to routine.

  3. Taking an enterprise-wide perspective. It may be hard to embrace the paradigms surrounding innovation—it can come from a single individual or from a team of individuals working together. Innovation can—and should—come from anywhere within the organization, where you can tap the benefits of the many different perspectives your managers and employees bring to the organization’s processes. The most successful innovation efforts come from people with diverse perspectives who network, collaborate, and build on each other’s ideas—current and future organizational challenges are complex and ambiguous and relying on a single person to solve the innovation equation, no matter how good the leadership, will likely reduce the opportunity for success.

In order to effectively lead innovation, a leader needs to shift from traditional methods of leadership to concepts that define innovation leadership. In this next section, Horth and Vehar (2015) presented five recommended practices to elevate your leadership skills to be an innovation leader.

1. Learn how roles and capabilities necessary for innovation vary by level in the organization. In this area, there are five divisions of leadership responsibility:

Table: Innovation leadership skill by leader level.

Adapted from Horth and Vehar (2015)

2. Focus on innovation Innovation in organizations is not a random or unstructured activity. Innovation requires people with innovative mindsets working together towards a common target to understand and clarify the challenge, generate and refine ideas, develop solutions and plans, and implement the innovation to realize a quantifiable gain. These four steps—Explore, Ideate, Craft, and Implement—focused on a target make up CCL’s Targeted Innovation process and can be applied to any innovation need. When leaders understand how innovation works, they can see what is missing and, as with any other leadership challenge, create a strategy or plan to make it better.

3. Identify and leverage different contributions to enhance innovation success. If innovation can be seen as a process, with different steps and stages, leaders can then see how different skills, perspectives, and contributions are needed along the way. Gerard Puccio, PhD, Director of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at the State University of New York College at Buffalo, conducted research on developing a framework and assessment tool for innovation. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) adapted this work to create FourSight, which identifies four thinking profiles to help understand the preferences and perspectives that contribute to the innovation process:

  • Clarifiers explore the challenge to understand and pinpoint it.

  • Ideators prefer to generate big possibilities.

  • Developers focus on crafting and planning potential solutions.

  • Implementers like to put workable solutions into practice.

4. Work across traditional boundaries. If you want to enable innovation, you need to approach it as a multi-disciplinary, cross-categorical activity. That means up the chain, down the chain, and laterally throughout the organizational hierarchy. How does a leader functionally connect these disparate segments of the organization? You need to connect people and ideas with each other while maintaining a strategic supervisory awareness by influencing, connecting, and empowering collaboration among those people (Figure below).

Figure: Working across boundaries to foster innovation.

5. Embrace polarity. Think of this as two poles of a bar-shaped magnet—one a positive pole, the other negative. Paradoxes—conflicting priorities—must be approached from this polarity mindset when exercising problem-solving. There is often not a clear-cut N/S, black/white answer to the issues facing managers. But with polarity thinking, you can start from the opposing ends of an issue and then work toward the middle ground, taking into account the many components that may be a part of the issue at hand. Yes, it may result sometimes in compromises, but solutions that are fully polar—one side or the other—often serve to breed discord, at least for a period of time, unless the leader presents it in such a way that the perspectives of both sides are felt to be respected.

Where to Next?

Organizations need leaders at every level of the organization. As a senior leader, one of your most important responsibilities is to nurture, mentor, and develop new leaders from among your managers. They, in turn, will develop new managers from their most talented employees. In the end, however, if you do things “because they have always been done this way,” you will not only lose the benefits of innovation but will also fall behind your peers and competitors who embrace it.


Next week will be the 16th post in the series: Wait–Does Change Really Work?


Gibson, D. (2005). Hurdling creativity barriers: A top-down approach for encouraging innovation in the workplace. Leadership Advance Online. Retrieved from

Horth, D., & Vehar, J. (2015). Innovation: How leadership makes the difference.Retrieved from Seattle, WA:



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