The following is a guest post from Lina Echeverría, author of Idea Agent: Leadership that Liberates Creativity and Accelerates Innovation about the need for companies and workplaces to nourish innovation and creativity, to help drive the progress that will keep America on the national stage.
As we struggle through what seems like an interminable financial mess, our attention begins to focus on our other realities. Not a day goes by without an op-ed column in our major newspapers warning us about our nation’s loss of competitiveness, or the need to fix our schools to teach and foster entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity, not just basic learning.
We are concerned with the loss of our national hegemony as the driving engine of the world. We fear that the country will not be able to address the strategic inflection point it traverses and that the waking Chinese dragon will become more dominant. For it was asleep during the Industrial Revolution, but now it has sent a clear message that it intends to participate fully in the green revolution.
Tom Friedman wrote an article for the New York Times predicting that, with China deciding to go green, we will be buying not just toys and sneakers from China, but also electric cars, solar panels, batteries and energy-efficiency software. He concludes that this is the 21st century equivalent of the ’57 launching of the Soviet Sputnik—it stunned us, convinced us that the US was falling back in technology. But we are still not racing and ignore China’s advancements at our peril.
Recommendations for managing creativity abound, mostly answering the needs of organizations with more organizational processes. It may be premature to say whether this type of recommendation works or not. One thing is clear: these recommendations are not jump-starting our innovation.
Yet we continue to be the strongest social magnet, attracting the people of the world that ensure the healthiest stream of talent. We continue to be an open society that embraces people, and where they can express themselves. Is this not what enabled our early innovators to flourish, creating whole new industries based on new inventions, developing superior manufacturing methods, coming up with new trinkets, creating new needs, and bringing them to market? Where, then, have we lost our edge? Perhaps we need to look at inventions past and inventions present, understand the technology needs, and manage for the ultimate need: breakthrough delivery.
To regain our innovative edge we need only to do what gave it to us in the first place: the creation of the space for innovative drivers to spread their wings. Whether musicians, architects or scientists, creative people are capable of eliciting the inexplicable, of following an inner drive, of having a vision and stopping at nothing to make it happen.
I have witnessed them and led them for decades, as I chronicle in my new book Idea Agent: Leadership that Liberates Creativity and Accelerates Innovation. The passion that drives creativity is unrelenting and unstoppable. It is what is driving today what Fast Company’s Robert Safian has termed Generation Flux : the tidal wave of creative, innovative startups sweeping the country, from inner cities to rural locales, with college dropouts building cloud storage businesse; first generation Americans creating social-media firms and graphic designers realizing their long-lost dreams and joining NASA.
This, once again, is our reality today, driven by that overwhelming force that is the creative drive. What we need is the leadership that will create and defend that space where dreams can, once again, become reality. Getting to know the creatives, their personal passions, their idiosyncrasies and strengths, is a priority.
Assembling the multidisciplinary teams required by the complexity of today’s needs demands not only leadership that will unleash the creativity, but also leadership with the ability to manage the conflict that will ensue. For the creative are driven, convinced of their truth, and stubborn in their pursuits. And several of them in a team can—and often will—spell discord: the different viewpoints and perspectives and opinions that are the very essence of innovation. And so in leadership for innovation, a priority just as important as freeing spirits is that of managing the conflict that these strong creative personalities will originate. If managed, conflict and tension can be creative. If left unattended, it will result in lost opportunities.
And it takes more. Because creativity needs to happen at the front lines of companies between business leaders and researchers every day, there is an imperative to balance freedom and rigor: to give researchers the freedom to really find path-breaking new products, while imposing the kind of rigor that business and competition, budgets and product cycles require. It may sound conflicting, but it is needed—and can be done. The secret that successful companies know is that harnessing creativity requires them to look at innovation as a goal, with creativity as a central part of both the culture and the way a whole organization is structured and run every day.
The aim, then, is to create organizations where researchers, developers, manufacturers and marketers work together, rather than constantly battling over goals and priorities. Organizations need to be flexible and rigorous, liberating and structured. Organizations need to be guided by leaders with the will to manage and the guts to decide, but also with the wisdom to guide and the passion to make innovation happen.
Lina M. Echeverría is an innovation leadership consultant with 25 years experience in creating and delivering science and technology. At Corning Incorporated, she created an environment where scientists were both creative and productive, and where teams balanced the ability to explore innovation while delivering critical new technology on time and on budget. From scientist to vice president, she helped drive new products that now underpin our technology-based economy, from faster optical fiber that powers the Internet to flat-panel glass used in everything from smart phones to LCD TVs.