As readers of this blog know, I’ve long been interested in innovation. Is there a creative gene? Are you able to develop it like a skill? How can company culture be changed to improve the odds in favor of creative teams?
The International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State University offers programs in creativity. Chris Grivas and Gerrard Puccio wrote The Innovative Team to make fifty years of research at the institution available outside of the academic institution. Gerard Puccio is department chair and professor at Buffalo State University, and Chris Grivas is an organizational and leadership development consultant.
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Chris about the book and his observations on innovation.
What first started your interest in innovation?
Back in the days when I was in college, I had what can best be described as a “grunt” job. It was long days with people vying to work the weekends where they would get extra pay. Most of my colleagues did not have college degrees and few could have hoped for a better job. They seem resigned to accept this state of life rather than work on improving their options. Why would people settle for a life like this? What would inspire them to do something more and find a way to make it work? I talked with friends and professors about it, and one answer that came up made a lot of sense to me – it’s about how they use their creativity. If they were confident in their ability to create new alternatives, they may become inspired to innovate their way to a better life. Now that was a topic that got me excited, so I went on to explore it in graduate school.
You decided to write this book in story form. Why?
People have been using stories as learning tools since humans learned to talk. Whether it’s a cautionary tale with a moral at the end, or a tale like mine that is designed to show how what we know about creative thinking styles plays out in real life, the story itself helps streamline learning and can bring somewhat esoteric ideas down to earth and help make them approachable. So I set out to make the story strong and entertaining while demonstrating key concepts from the latest research into creative thinking.
Are people born with a ‘creativity gene’ or is it a learned skill?
Studies consistently show that groups who are trained in creative thinking skills consistently outperform untrained groups, both in terms of amount of new ideas (both good and bad) as well as the overall “creativeness” of the outcomes. We now think of creativity as one of those fundamental traits that makes us all human and also as one that can be enhanced and grown with practice. So if you are one of those people who think, “I’m not creative,” good news: you just need to learn about how you are creative. How one uses his or her creativity influences both the quality and uniqueness of the outcome. The outcome – that innovative result of creative efforts – is linked to both how we think about the problem or challenge at hand and our awareness of the creative process. Both of these things can most certainly be taught.
You talk about four styles of creativity in the book. Explain them.
My co-author, Dr. Gerard Puccio, did an enormous amount of research into how people engage in the creative process and found that people naturally gravitate toward different parts of that process. His research showed four distinct styles of creative thinking: Clarifying, Ideating, Developing and Implementing. Some of us are more comfortable with one or more of these styles than the others; others may be comfortable with all of them.
Clarifiers are people who like to dive deep into the data, ask questions, and use their creativity to discover new directions to explore. Ideators are people who like to generate lots of options, see the big picture, and apply their creativity broadly, without restraint. Developers are people who like to tinker and incrementally improve ideas into something solid, applying their creativity “within the box” to create something realistic and applicable to the situation at hand. And then there are Implementers, people who like getting results, seeing ideas in action, and applying their creativity to make that new idea a reality.
Interestingly, we have found that while knowing your own creative thinking style(s) is valuable, knowing the styles of those you work with is even more so The Innovative Team is designed to show the positive impact that recognizing and appreciating different people’s thinking styles can have on any team charged with solving a difficult challenge.
What is your view of failure? When is it beneficial? How do organizations use it to their benefit?
Trial and error is how we learn. As Tom Peters said, “Test fast, fail fast, adjust fast.” Organizations that build in testing time, or, to put it in the framework of The Innovative Team, ones that spend an appropriate amount of time in the Developing stage, will implement ideas that have been vetted, broken and fixed, tested and re-tested. Developing maximizes any initiative’s chance of success. Failures are crucial to finding the “right” solution; that’s why creating a risk-friendly environment is the fundamental job of the leader of the organization. Such a culture comes about through both leadership skills (like phrasing concerns as questions) and framing organizational structures (like paying attention to process and building time into schedules to reflect on progress) that can help create environments conducive to risk-taking. Without the ability to take risks, an organization will have a very hard time innovating.
You outline the four stages of problem solving:
1. Clarifying the situation
2. Generating ideas
3. Developing solutions
4. Implementing the plan
Of these four stages, is there one where most teams are usually stuck? What’s the most difficult stage to move through?
The stage that is most difficult for a team to move through is the one they don’t like to think about. For instance, if you have a team of ideators, they may not want to move out of that stage and get on to the work of developing. In fact, when they feel challenged by another stage, they may naturally revert to ideating again, because that’s how they like to think. The challenge isn’t with the stage of the process, it’s with the group and its leader or facilitator. Being self-aware, knowing where you are in the process and what is called for that stage in the process is key. A good facilitator will recognize when a team is relying too heavily on its thinking preferences and then be able to bring the group back to the task at hand. There are many tools for getting people through those stages team members don’t prefer, and a good leader, like the one described in The Innovative Team, will be able to employ those tools with agility to great effect.
Creating a positive culture in a business is vital to long-term success. Your last chapter is titled “Creating Conditions for Success,” but it is also highlighted through the narrative. How do you create conditions to foster success? Any companies you’ve worked with that do it well? Or perhaps any clues you normally see when you are working with a company where conditions are creating failure?
The short answer is you create conditions for success by paying attention to them. Research shows that it’s a lot easier to kill creativity than it is to build it up, so without proper attention we may inadvertently stifle the creative potential of our organizations. Risk tolerance, fostering debate and communication, allowing time for playing with ideas, encouraging a mix of diversity of thought and experience when putting together teams, and managing organizational change are all key building blocks in creating a positive culture for innovation. Many organizations have built-in structures for growing these environments. For example, Google famously creates idea time for its people to work on their own interests. Many software developers have adopted “Scrum” or “Agile” processes that allow for rapid-cycle improvements to be made and innovative ideas to see the light of day rather than being lost in the shuffle or worse – never imagined. When I consult with organizations, I look at not just the behaviors of the leadership (though this is often the biggest challenge), but also at decision-making processes, levels of bureaucracy, and how systems encourage and discourage openness to novelty.
Since writing this book, I’m sure that you’ve heard from readers who identify with the lessons. Anything you have learned since to add to these powerful lessons?
Much of the feedback I’ve received has highlighted the strong need for mindful leadership. The more a leader lets go of the illusion of command and control to get into the trenches and adopt a facilitative, collaborative style emphasizing diversity of thought and shared-ownership, the more likely he or she is to have a positive culture of engaged, enthusiastic team members committed to success.