Leading Creatively

An article in Knowledge@Wharton highlighted an apparent paradox: organisations want greater creativity, but regard people who demonstrate creative thinking as being less suitable for leadership than their more “normal” colleagues.

The article – why creative people lose out on leadership positions – has generated a lot of discussion. And, it has been strongly argued (see Gerard Puccio’s comment) that it has been stretched beyond its original meaning. However, leaving the hype to one side, the article highlights a fundamental problem that society has with creativity. People cannot agree what we mean by the term. And because of this definitional ambiguity, we end up talking at cross purposes.

One widely used definition of creativity describes it as the generation of ideas that are both novel and useful.  There is nothing wrong with this definition, it accurately describes a class of ideas. But for some reason, despite the equal weight of the words useful and novel in the aforementioned definition, novel ends up getting the most emphasis. This tends to devalue people who are good at producing highly useful solutions.

The Kirton Adapater Innovator theory gives us a way of valuing both adaptive and innovative problem solving. The instrument measures an individual’s preference or natural tendency toward generating radical ideas or more practical ideas that represent incremental change. What we know is that both types of creative thinking are required in the innovative process. One is not more valuable than the other. And teams that incorporate both types of creative thinking are most likely to succeed as innovators.

When it comes to cultivating creativity, what we really need from leadership is a vision and a pathway for getting to great solutions. The question is how to get those solutions? Here’s how we’d answer that:

1. Understand and use the deliberate creative process.
2. Be open to both adaptive and innovative ideas and solutions, and knowing when the situation calls for which kind of response.
3. Choose a solution that is the best fit for the problem.
4. Appreciate and reward the team for usefulness and novelty.

Ultimately, the creative success of any team probably has little to do with the personality of its leader, and more to do with his or her capability to harness a balanced creative approach that invites solutions both novel and useful.

Know Further: Learn more about the Kirton Adaption/Innovation Inventory. Some other takes on creative leadership, also from Knoweldge@Wharton. There’s also a center that focuses on creative leadership. And here’s some research about why creative people are eccentric.