Why talk about creativity when you want innovation?

March 9th, 2021 – Reading time: 10 minutes

A plea for systematic innovation – Part I

“With creativity, in most cases the wrong horse is saddled to win the innovation race. The horse of creativity will prove to be stubborn and capricious. Admittedly, systematics as an alternative offers less adventure and surprises, but gallops along planned tracks, so the result is assured.” (Volker Lippitz)

We interviewed Eric von Hippel and Sandro Kaulartz on their new approach to innovation using artificial intelligence and user innovations. Here you can watch the summary of the video (12:35).

One could become awestruck in view of the confusing quantity of publications about creativity, which also seems to include and dominate the concept of innovation. A prospective innovation manager who is faced with the task of climbing this mountain of books to extract practical and promising approaches for his company will rather be afraid. Often, the recommendations are exhausted by the fact that creativity or creative factors need to be promoted because they have been given too little attention so far. This „recommendation“ is as unhelpful as it is concrete. If the task of the innovation manager is to make innovation something that is taken for granted, then the thesis of this article is that more creativity can even be counterproductive.

Why is it that despite this abundance of publications on creativity, there are so few concrete and generally applicable best practices [19, p. 254]? It is also astonishing that for about sixty years [18, p. 142] there have been unchanged and almost inconsequential demands that (more) creativity is needed to be innovative [22, pp. 139-144; 20, p. 162 & p. 179; 6, p. 105; 19, p. 208; 12, p. 73; 30, p. 141]. This article takes up these questions and basically wants to show that creativity is by no means without alternatives.

The first part of the systematic innovation series compares the fundamental motives of a company (efficiency and effectiveness) and the mode of action of creativity.

The goal of companies: Efficiency and effectiveness 

Why are companies founded? It is worth investigating this seemingly banal question because it addresses the fundamental motives of a company. In the following, these motives will be compared with the mode of action of creativity. There are several reasons for founding a company (and there may be others): The founder discovers a gap in the market, wants to realize his own potential or wants to professionally do what he had previously done on the side unprofessionally. What they all have in common is that there is a need that the founder intends to cover – or, in Drucker’s words, „to create a customer“ [15, p. 159]. Two secondary goals derive from this primary goal: Efficiency through economies of scale, i.e., concentration and larger volumes and effectiveness, which is realized through quality. Three essential factors contribute to this: 

  1. Standardization: professionalization goes hand in hand with the transformation of the „somehow done“ into proven routines. The goal of every company is to optimize the repeatability of activities, i.e., to introduce standardization. Mintzberg also sees standardization (standardization of work, standardization of outputs, standardization of skills) as three of the five basic mechanisms that fundamentally hold companies together [23, p. 2-9].  
  2. Processes: if one proceeds rationally, this basic motivation automatically leads to processual action. Processes increase both efficiency (by eliminating superfluous activities and optimizing productive ones) and effectiveness (higher quality through learning effects, control and comparison possibilities). Effectiveness often indirectly increases by exchanging part of the efficiency for quality. According to Björk organizations formalize behavior to reduce its variability, ultimately to predict and control it“ [4, p. 17]. 
  3. Planning: processes, economies of scale and targeted quality improvement make planning necessary. Its goal is the continued existence of the current operation. Every company has the basic motive to systematically prepare its own survival through planning [14, p. 199]. 

Creativity as the basis for innovation: A contradiction with company goals 

Creativity is an individual characteristic 

Creativity is an iridescent term. Researchers agree on the fact that there is no uniform definition [21, p. 19]. This results from the complexity of the term. As Kruse aptly said: „Creativity is not a simple or uniform ability. Most recent theories understand creativity as a resultant of the interaction of different cognitive, motor, aesthetic, and emotional factors, thus as an emergent ability or trait“ [21, p. 16]. Although there is no clear definition, there are features that characterize creativity. In particular, the ability to break up entrenched structures and bring about paradigm shifts should be emphasized [21, p. 32].

There are factors that favor creativity. Sternberg and Lubart [Lubart] see six resources as crucial for creativity: intellectual abilities, knowledge, thinking styles, personality, motivation, and environment. It becomes clear that creativity also depends on factors that cannot simply be trained. These factors act indirectly or are given externally. Thus, it is not surprising that not everyone is creative [21, p. 15]. Personality traits and skills cannot be changed in the short term, if at all. Doubts about the effectiveness of so-called „creativity trainings“ are therefore warranted. These trainings suggest that creativity can be acquired overnight [see e.g. 17, p. 187, p. 174]. At best, buried potentials can be raised or inner resources activated [21, p. 13], but not created.  

The contradiction between creative freedom and structured processes does not exist 

Ultimately, the goal of innovation management is to produce innovations. Innovation is the product of creative action. Creativity, on the other hand, is only a functional instrument. If more creativity is demanded for the purpose of more innovation, this implies that there is no other way to obtain innovation. This becomes particularly clear when the „organizational dilemma“ is mentioned. This would be based on the contradiction between the desired creative freedom and the necessary controlled routine of the innovation process [30, p. 142].

A dilemma can only occur if, due to a lack of alternatives, one must scale and weigh between two characteristics. Since systematics is an alternative to creativity, this contradiction does not exist. Process and product are inadmissibly conflated here. But before going into more detail about the systematic alternative, it may be useful to look at what is assumed to be the result and process of creativity. 

The creative process does not deliver predictable results 

According to Csikszentmihaly, the „creative product“ is a result of the interaction of three factors: „a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation“ [10, p. 6]. The last evaluative aspect is especially important, as it separates the novel from the bizarre. Many creativity researchers have always argued against valuations [e.g., 31, p. 65; 25, p. 72]. The main argument is that cultural values and norms are subject to change. However, this valuation is necessary against the background of industrially motivated innovation. Innovation involves market success [19, p. 5]. Thus, it also includes acceptance by the current environment in which it is placed.  

The creative way of working is characterized by a playful, unplanned and open-ended approach [21, p. 36]. Efficiency should not be a criterion. Any form of judgment during the creative process is seen as constricting and inhibiting creativity. [19, P. 208, P. 195]. Ultimately, the outcome of creativity cannot be planned [12, p. 6]. Every user of creativity who has the goal of creating innovative products should be aware of this. 

Brainwaves do not exist 

A repeatedly propagated creativity-promoting technique for finding ideas is that of detaching oneself from all prior experience and prior knowledge. This is also said to promote brainwaves [12, p. 95; 27, p. 167]. The brainwave, the unusual and surprising idea, often also referred to as eureka experience or intuition, is virtually mystified in creative literature and presented as desirable [e.g. 27, p. 98f]. In the five-stage creative process on which many methods are based, it even receives its own phase with the so-called „illumination“ [16, p. 10ff]. Drucker comments quite laconically on brainwaves: „But also, to popular belief in the romance of invention and innovation, brainwaves are uncommonly rare. What is worse, I know of none such brainwave that turned into an innovation. They all remained brilliant ideas“ [13, p. 122]. 

Research also concludes that brainwaves do not exist. Very often they are invented after the fact for reasons of self-promotion. Rather, the moment of insight is the result of lengthy preparatory work combined with considerable expertise. This is confirmed by some qualitative studies on creative scientists in the natural sciences and mathematics [9; 7, p. 102].  

Quantity of ideas before quality is a waste of resources 

According to the author’s experience, detaching oneself from the familiar and the known does not produce brilliant ideas, but rather ideas that are often already known. The intended sorting out of brainwaves as part of the post-processing of a creative workshop is thus hopeless. Moreover, this reworking is immensely costly because in such creativity techniques quantity ranks before quality. This may be logical insofar as the result of creativity cannot be planned. However, it has the effect that ideas of high quality naturally remain rare. Nevertheless, creative-intuitive methods for generating ideas dominate [19, p. 280; 26, p. 17]. 

Studies emphasize the importance of idea quality [24, p. 248]. Every company has only limited resources. As a result, not all viable ideas can be implemented. Only the outstandingly good ideas should be realized. This fails in the wild growth of unplanned brainwaves, but in guided processes of innovation. These do not start without preconditions but draw on experience and preliminary work. Ideas are not a quantitative but a qualitative problem [24 p. 249; 4, p. 662]. Thus, increased effort in idea generation is worthwhile to increase idea quality [26, p.29, p. 182]. It is therefore incomprehensible that ‚quantity over quality‘ elevates inefficiency to a paradigm in many creative methods. 

In summary, creativity is spontaneous, erratic, unpredictable in its outcome, inherently inefficient (playfulness dominates) and ultimately often ineffective. It is thus in direct conflict with the fundamental interests of a company. Creativity cannot be trained and can only be promoted indirectly. These boundary conditions result in a lack of concrete and proven procedures what makes it difficult for innovation managers to create innovations on this basis, especially if the available staff is not very creative. Hardly any company that is open to innovation can build solely on uncertainty of creative ideas and the disregard for routines and proven experience. Therefore, it may rightly be asked why methods dominate which go against company interests and thus have at best a provocative effect.  


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Volker Lippitz
Volker LippitzTechnology Consultant

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Here you can watch the summary of the video interview with Eric von Hippel and Sandro Kaulartz on YouTube.

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