Creativity First

Good ideas require creative thinking. Creative thinking requires time, the right mindset and sometimes the right environment. We may not have each of these at any given time, but as we move into the future to become a better organization it’s important that our approach to growth, saving resources and productivity is done carefully and with purpose. In recent years we’ve embarked on a journey to unveil innovation at an uncontrollable rate and may have been done blindly and without purpose. Let me state the innovation is great, but how we approach innovation can be wrong. These days no matter what organization you’re a part of it’s all about innovation. One has to ask, “What are we really trying to change?” Isn’t that the whole point of innovation…to change? Most organizations are not ready for change and here we are asking people to innovate when most have never needed to, nor have ever been taught how to innovate.

You wouldn’t throw a child into a pool of water if they didn’t know how to swim, but yet, here we are, throwing our teams into a pool of water knowing they don’t know how to swim. The innovation pool that is. To become an innovative culture requires us to challenge and change our current adaptive culture. We have been taught to follow policy and follow instruction. Where is the change in doing so? How are we preparing our members to switch to an innovative mindset? We’ve been taught through policy, guidance and instructions that straying from the rules is the wrong way to get the job done. Thinking out of the box requires a change in mindset. How do we change a culture born to follow rules to flip the switch to take risks on an idea? This notion of innovation poses more questions than our plan describes. Now that I think of it, what’s the plan for innovation, again?

Why the emphasis on innovation? Is it to save money, time, resources, and manpower? All great areas to ‘save,’ but are we being intentional enough about it or taking a big shot in the dark hoping to hit somewhere on the target of innovation. We can’t afford to gamble without direction. We must be deliberate about which areas we need to change.

For example, technology. Technology is advancing, as is our heavy reliance on it. We have simultaneously hit an era of business with higher demands for using it. The consistent problem with leveraging technology is that as it advances the cost increases. The cost counters what our budget allows in many cases. We have no choice, but to rely on technology and will always be met with budget constraints and yet, another problem, but let’s take a look at the precursor to innovation.

“Innovation in the military, as in other sectors, seems an isolated event only when we intentionally separate the culminating breakthrough from the sequence of preceding events.”

Innovation is a result of creative thinking and time. It must be looked at as the product we get from how we solve problems. We solve problems by being creative. The path from problem to solution is creativity. If we want to improve our organizations beyond our current state we have to focus on the driving force of innovation which is creativity.

“If we view history with this restricted view, then Edison’s light bulb and the Wright brothers’ aircraft appear as dynamic manifestations of inspiration. Conversely, if we view these innovations as products in their full context, then we begin to see innovation as the consequence of creativity and effort applied over time.”

Creativity is a process for generating ideas to solve problems. It is also the catalyst for adapting, changing and making our processes better. Innovation is the level of change from creativity. If you reference Kirton’s Adaptive-Innovative theory, adaptive thinkers improve the system while innovators change the system, but both begin with creativity. Our current culture is built on compliance and adaptive thinking, but kudos as we are trying to expand our ability to think outside the norm by unleashing the force to innovate.

The problem is how we’ve approached innovation. We’re killing the word by calling every small improvement innovation. It’s easy to jump to a hot idea such as innovation. We love hearing it. We love saying it. We’ve definitely got the message out that we need to innovate. Every senior leader mentions it every time they speak about our future. Have we thought about the repercussions of pushing too hard for it?

“We tend to treat innovation with reverence. We have romanticized it, and we are always chasing after it, as if it is some holy grail.” Although this notion may seem counterintuitive, given all of the rampant advocacy for innovation, Quinn argues that a clear, negative side exists to having too much of a push for change: “Innovators, for example, can be creative, but if they push their inclinations too far, their behavior leads to belligerence, chaos, disastrous experimentation, and unprincipled opportunism.” 

The negative side effects of forcing change can lead to unnecessary risk. In most instances, we are not ready for risk. Risk is challenging. What are we willing to risk for innovation? Since culture is born through actions and we’re giving everyone the green light to “fail forward,” then at what point, if not successful, do we become a culture of failure instead of a culture of innovation? Are we willing to bet our culture on it? 

“To capitalize on this opportunity, senior leaders must promote a clear understanding of innovation and work to shape the military’s culture of compliance into one of disciplined creativity.”

Where is the talk about being creative? Where are the workshops on how to think creatively if we want our members to innovate? I support making our culture better for the sake of taking care of people and winning wars, but our plan needs to be outlined specifically with the HOW without using hope as a strategy that someone somewhere will make something innovative. Investing in the development of creativity first is where we should begin on this road to innovation versus telling the masses, “Go innovate.”

Creativity can happen anywhere, but to create a culture of innovation the environment must support it. Have we tailored our environments to allow creativity? This goes beyond listening to ideas. 

We must have resources and in some cases money to bring life to ideas to see if they work. Let’s also not forget that innovation often costs money upfront before it saves money. Are we giving time back to our airmen to think creatively? There’s a lot of preparation for an innovative culture to manifest.

Above all, creativity breeds opportunity for change. Change is required as we move forward to become a better organization. To capitalize on the efforts to innovate let’s focus on solving problems with creativity as our first step. If we’re creative enough we may just innovate in the end.