Creative culture comes from within

For innovation to flourish, it has to be a core part of an organisation's values, writes Ahmad Badr of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.

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I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble, but I’m afraid that it is already too late to come up with the lightbulb, the Post-it note, the iPod or the internet. The same goes for powered flight, the printing press and vaccinations. Even sliced bread has already been done.

Ideas – particularly those that have changed the world or made a great deal of money – are among the most desirable of business attributes. They contain the promise of a market niche, a competitive advantage and a leap in profitability. Not surprising then that some corporations will invest vast quantities of money and time chasing the next great innovation, while start-ups with a burning idea will work night and day to try to capitalise on their potential.

It would certainly be useful if, as an organisation, you could simply employ an ideas department that clocked in for their eight hours each day and churned out a steady and never-ending stream of winning ideas that were fully prepared to take the market by storm. A creative workforce of innovators who never failed to create and who never came upon a challenge for which there wasn’t a wondrously imaginative solution.

The reality is that innovation is a far from dependable source – it won’t happen to a schedule, and its previous appearance in a particular team or individual is no guarantee of future inspiration. Some of the great inventions of history have variously come from the mind of a singular genius; the ridiculous good fortune of its inventor; or the grim pursuit of a concept in the face of near-overwhelming opposition. All are conditions that are exceptionally difficult to replicate in a different time and context, which does beg the question of how any organisation can hope to encourage a leap in its own innovative output.

From a leadership perspective, this has to come down to overall strategy. For innovation to flourish, it has to be a core part of an organisation’s values, which means, in practice, giving ideas the room to breathe.

Corporate creativity is often held back by a fundamental aversion to risk and failure. In the boardroom, this is a fear of pouring hard-earned revenue into projects that might never bear fruit. Lower down, this can be because the organisational culture might leave individuals with a perception of limited freedom to try new things. The company may appear unforgiving of failed ventures or unwilling to recognise the extra effort involved with pursuing something new. It may also simply fail to allow the time for good ideas to develop. If their employees see only fear and no benefit in creativity, then no organisation should be surprised if they appear stuck with the status quo.

Overcoming this fear of failure requires that an organisation look at its risk management processes and at how it responds to setbacks. If a workforce sees that ideas are rigorously pursued throughout an organisation then learnt from whatever the outcome, they are far more likely to embrace the challenges and risks of innovation themselves.

Another part of this is ensuring that your recruitment process is actively looking for creativity – not just for your obviously creative departments, but throughout your organisation. It is important to remember that innovation needn’t be of the scale of a truly earth-shattering idea.

Innovation for many organisations can be as much about refining processes and maximising productivity as it is with giant leaps of creativity, and this is no bad thing. A simple idea on how a basic but crucial work process can be refined could make an enormous difference to the way your organisation operates in its markets.

No organisation has a monopoly on innovation and creativity, and none can claim a consistent and unblemished flow of winning ideas. However, a business that is prepared to place a real premium on innovation and make it a pursuit in its own right is certainly going to have more success than a company that waits for inspiration to strike.

Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.

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