Next time you and your team feel creatively blocked, tell the boss
you’re going to the movies or on a day trip to Paris. In fact, anywhere
other than the office that seems like fun.
This might seem like a light-hearted reading of When Sparks Fly -
Igniting Creativity in Groups (Harvard Business School Press), written
by US academics Dorothy Leonard of Harvard Business School, and Walter
Swap of Tufts University, but it has an underlying serious message.
They argue that creativity and innovation is not just about having a few
wild-eyed eccentric geniuses locked in a basement, but about developing
a culture aimed at encouraging well-led, well-managed group interactions
rooted in a solid understanding of human behaviour. Those
competition-busting creative sparks can come from anywhere, they
Maybe it’s millennial angst, but there does seem to be an increase in
books about finding the secret of off-the-wall thinking. For example,
there is management guru Charles Handy’s The New Alchemists, which
tries, through interviews with likes of Terence Conran and Charles
Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse, to divine if there is a magic ingredient
that makes some people able to turn metaphorical base metal into
Whatever the impetus, it does seem as if creativity in business is back
in fashion. Of course, it never really went away. But for the last few
decades, with some notable exceptions, it has been submerged beneath the
welter of consultancy-driven, hard-edged solutions to bottom line
improvement that were the antithesis of innovation.
Now a lot of desperate companies, facing declining margins, are
beginning to realise there’s nowhere left to go. You hear phrases like
’unlocking the inner potential’, ’thinking outside the box’ and
’empowering the inner child’ crop up in the most unlikely places - where
creativity and innovation have been, if not complete strangers, then at
best casual acquaintances.
And not before time. As competitive strategy guru Professor Michael
Porter told the World Productivity Congress in Edinburgh two weeks ago,
the UK’s decline in ’innovative capacity’ measured by patent activity
meant it was slipping further down the league of advanced innovative
This has all been heard before, and the UK is not the only one suffering
from signs of corporate sclerosis, but what makes the UK a particularly
interesting case is that in many instances, ’creativity’ is one of the
country’s natural talents. Unfortunately, it is usually seen as
something external agencies, like advertising, new product development
and design, do best.
Hence the inability to use more than the fingers of one hand when
counting examples of lasting business innovation. Dyson, First Direct,
Orange, The Body Shop, Direct Line, possibly Egg. Virgin? Maybe. Few
others spring immediately to mind.
Instead, we get companies being ’creative’ by changing the name to
reflect their exciting new direction, new ethos, and so on and on.
Companies like Scottish Telecom, which has embarrassingly renamed itself
Thus. What on earth prompted that?
The 20th anniversary of the Sony Walkman is as good a time as any to
reflect on sustainable creativity and innovation in UK business. And
Laura Mazur is a business writer and author.