November 28, 2013, by Kelly Cookson

Stifling creativity is self-defeating

By Paul Kirkham

Writing to his rival and fellow polymath Robert Hooke in 1676, Isaac Newton famously remarked: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” What he meant, of course, was that his own achievements were made possible by those of his predecessors.

Newton, though, wasn’t the first to employ this metaphor; that honour is usually attributed to the 12th-century philosopher Bernard of Chartres.

A thinker of more recent vintage, Paul Lutus, has argued that there are “idea producers” and “idea consumers”. He once said of the latter: “The central organising principle of this class is that ideas come from somewhere else – from magical persons, geniuses, ‘them’.”

And there, we might conclude, lies the crucial difference between those who are prepared to stand on the shoulders of giants and those who are content simply to cling to them while enjoying a relaxing piggy-back.

Idea producers and consumers

A key lesson for any organisation is that the more it encourages “idea producers” – and, by extension, the less it unwittingly cultivates “idea consumers” – the more likely it is to achieve success through ingenuity and innovation.

But this doesn’t mean we should all engage in an intellectual arms race by scrambling to assemble the world’s biggest R&D department. This would simply echo Lutus’s criticism of those who believe ideas must be generated by some form of “them”.

The fact is that you don’t have to be a “genius” to be creative. Nothing of the sort. A very simple experiment is all it takes to explode the myth that “creatives” are somehow “special people”.

We all appreciate we should engage our brains before opening our mouths, but we rarely do. When we start to speak we seldom know how a sentence is going to end or even if it will. We might set out with a vague plan, but in conversation – even with ourselves – repeated interruptions force us to revise what we’re about to say.

This is why we can always spot a cheesy chat-up line or a scripted snippet of sales patter. We innately recognise the unoriginal and the contrived, because that isn’t how we speak. Our speech is cybernetic. In short, we make it up as we go along. We demonstrate our creative ability every time we have a chat.

Everyone is creative, ergo every employee is creative

It seems strange, then, that so many organisations stifle the capacity for imagination that lurks within every one of us. Often the inherent constructs of the hierarchy – “Don’t waste your time thinking! Department A is paid to think!” – are sufficient to ensure the wider production of ideas is conspicuously curbed.

Let’s pause to reflect on the utter ridiculousness of such a situation. Everyone is creative, ergo every employee is creative. Every member of staff, from the CEO to the most junior new recruit, is a would-be “idea producer”.

Now say an organisation has a thousand employees but essentially allows only 50 of them to contribute to its innovation process. So 950 people who are eminently capable of having ideas contribute nothing. Ninety-five per cent of the staff are effectively rendered “idea consumers”. This is manifestly crazy – not to mention thoroughly self-defeating from an organisational point of view.

Great ideas are born from combinations of ideas

Not all ideas are good, of course. In fact most of them are not very good at all. Over a good many years teaching innovation the author and his colleagues have yet to see one fully formed ‘great idea’. In fact during our CPS sessions, when we meet a participant who claims to have a really good idea to solve the headline problem, we challenge them to put it on one side, to keep it their back pocket, and produce it at the end of the session. We have yet to be surprised, because creativity does not work like that – most people do not have great ideas of the top of their heads. They have a bit of a good idea, which, combined with part of another bit of a good idea and an improvement to someone else’s bad idea, and a reaction to yet another’s crazy idea, forms the beginnings of a feasible idea. And after that potential idea has been honed and improved and examined, then we can start to say it might be a ‘great idea’. So if you want to have great ideas you have to have a lot of ideas and be willing to throw away most of them and see the rest of them change, sometimes significantly. The consequence of this, if you want to create new ideas is to produce lots and not value them too highly, because most of them won’t make the cut. Even when the germ of the ultimate solution can be seen it always is capable of significant improvement. Some are downright daft. But even the silly ones can sometimes make a valuable contribution, if only by helping to shape a vastly superior alternative. The true waste doesn’t lie in devoting time and energy to novel concepts that could eventually lead to a dead end: it lies in deterring novel concepts in the first place.

Richard Feynman, the maverick physicist and Nobel Prize winner, touched on the issue in reflecting on his investigation into the Challenger space-shuttle disaster and the disconnect he found between NASA’s managers and engineers.

Feynman wrote: “It’s a question of whether, when you do tell somebody about some problem, they’re delighted to hear about it and say ‘Tell me more’ or they say ‘Well, see what you can do about it’ – which is a completely different atmosphere. If you try once or twice to communicate and get pushed back, pretty soon you decide ‘To hell with it’.”

Ideas don’t just address the problems of the present

Another compelling illustration of the benefits of nurturing a culture of ideas and innovation is contained in the following paradox:

Imagine you’re on a spaceship travelling towards some distant star. One day you look in the equivalent of your rear-view mirror and see a faster vessel about to overtake you.

This vessel, oddly enough, is from your own planet. It set out years after your mission but has caught up as a result of enormous advances in space technology since your day. So what was the point of you setting out at all? Why bother?

The answer is that the second spaceship would never have been invented were it not for the efforts of those who built the first. In other words, ideas don’t just address the problems of the present: as Newton understood perfectly, they also help lay the foundations for the future.

Ultimately, every organisation has the choice of nurturing ingenuity or suffocating it. We can stand on the shoulders of giants or spend our time anxiously glancing back over our own. Why would anyone choose the latter? As Newton lamented: “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies – but not the madness of people.”


Paul Kirkham is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity with Nottingham University Business School and co-deviser of the Ingenuity problem-solving process taught to students at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Posted in CreativityInnovation