Creativity Is Not Enough: Too Many Idea People, Too Few Innovators




It's true: Many people confuse the process of getting ideas with the agonizing realities of putting them to work.

Lack of creativity is not the problem in most organizations. Great ideas always abound. The real problem is converting an idea, which in reality is just a good intention, into operational reality.

Indeed, a powerful new idea can kick around unused in a company for years, not because its merits are not recognized, but because nobody has assumed or been assigned the responsibility for “running with it.”

Peter F. Drucker and famed Harvard Professor Ted Levitt said over and over again: "What is lacking in most organizations is not creativity in the idea-creating sense but innovation in the ‘making-it-happen sense.’ ”

The Fallacy of Creativity

Being creative is fun. And it's pretty easy. Implementation is hard. That's why creativity is relatively abundant and innovation scarce.

The fact that you can put a half-dozen people into a room and conduct a brainstorming session that produces exciting new ideas that rarely get implemented, shows how little importance ideas have when unaccompanied by a system or process for converting them into reality.

Most brainstorming sessions we’ve all attended over the years are inspirational. But because of the lack of appropriate organizational structures, few of the ideas served up are implemented.

Put differently, most “good ideas” are usually rejected by the ongoing organization which is dedicated to getting today's job done, and has little time or desire to make the new and different happen.

So, how does one make innovation happen? Really make it happen?

In a series of upcoming articles, we will explore the enormous contributions of innovation thought leaders, including Peter Drucker, Michael Porter, Ted Levitt, Gary Hamel, Philip Kotler, Michael Arena and others who will detail how to formulate a purposeful innovation strategy… the dynamics of innovation… measurements & budgets for innovation… innovation structures for innovation and much more.

Good Management vs. Good Ideas

It's often said: People confuse good management with a good idea that makes management look good.

What's not said is: It takes a special kind of management to put into action a good idea; A management that has the know-how, energy, daring and staying power to implement genuinely good ideas that are consistent with the mission and purpose of the business.

Slightly paraphrasing Ted Levitt: 

"Take two 'wannabe' book authors. One tells you about a great idea for a book, but never seems to marshal up the energy to actually write the book. The other has the same idea, and writes the book, which subsequently becomes a bestseller.

...You could easily say that the second author is a creative genius. But could you say the same thing about the first author? We hope not. At best, the first would-be author is a dreamer and persuasive talker. But not a doer.

...Too often we mistake the idea for a great book with the great book itself. We mistake brilliant talk for actual doing. We confuse motion with progress."

Ideas are not good enough. Ideas are not deeds. Above all, ideas need people who are doers, not talkers.

Organizations need people who can take a good idea and systematically follow through with detailed plans and proposals for their implementation, or even with some suggestions of the risks, costs, talent requisites, time budgets and possible payouts.

The Role of Senior Management in the Innovation Process

Senior management must take responsibility for establishing entirely separate centers of initiative within the organization that are created specifically for producing and managing innovation—a startup-like culture within an already established corporation.

There are countless articles (especially, those from the Harvard Business Review) that painstakingly detail how continually successful organizations pursue purposeful innovation through venture management systems.

The organizational structures at these companies encourage the creation of the "entrepreneurial equivalent of smallness" by continuously forming autonomous/semi-autonomous strategic business units.

Yet many organizations are prone to colossal blunders when it comes to encouraging and supporting true innovation. It seems to us, many management teams have not taken the time to learn how to systematically make purposeful innovation happen.

The information is all there. But it must be systematically learned and put into practice. Otherwise it will remain information and not be directed toward specific innovative work and performance.

Beyond Adrenaline-Charged Innovation Messages

Many firms now realize they have to master a new environment as the crisis & response to it forces breakthrough innovations.

Pumped with fear and urgency, many senior level executives are broadcasting rousing, inspirational messages for the need to innovate. But without a true understanding of a methodology-driven approach to innovation, many innovation efforts will be crushed by dysfunctional people and internal politics.

Stated differently, many management leaders still cling to slogans, exhortations and meaningless targets in the hope of inspiring innovation. Such exhortations have never worked. Innovation is a process. It requires a disciplined approach.

Systematic innovation and internal entrepreneurship are acquired skills. They can be taught, learned and practiced. Serious-minded internal training organizations must understand this and take steps to become change leaders.

With fleeting modesty, we strongly believe our virtual conference L&D in a Time of Great Change will begin a much-needed dialogue on successful innovation approaches that will will dramatically increase an organization’s innovation success rate.

The Talkers

Now, let's examine the "talkers." They think of themselves as idea people. They complain about the stand-pat senility or massive inertia of the organization. They complain about management’s refusal to implement their ideas. They complain, complain and complain.

They talk about how the organization prefers to trade-off long-term growth for short-term profits, which may be true in some organizations.

But, for the most part, to paraphrase Ted Levitt: Organizations need people willing to assume responsibility for implementation, rather than people who live dangerously by thinking their job is finished after they suggest an idea; that it is up to somebody else to work out the nitty-gritty details of implementation.

To risk any responsibility for implementation is to risk failure. The safe solution is to steer clear of implementation and all the hard work it implies.

And, as many have learned, management leaders seem to have a higher opinion of people who succeed at low-risk tasks than of people who just missed at high-risk tasks. Instinctively, but without any hard evidence, we believe that's why some people remain talkers and not innovators.

Do You Ignore Them? Tell Them to Go Away?

“Creative malcontents” have a way of getting under your skin. They become annoying with their “got-a-minute” greeting. Busy executives understand time management. Experience tells them creative malcontents are time wasters. And they are!

Senior-level executives are constantly fielding an unending flow of questions on which actions must be taken. Almost daily, a CEO/CFO/COO must deal with urgent problems to which solutions must be crafted but for which answers are far from self-evident.

The creative malcontents probably believe that by supplying their boss with great new ideas to help achieve results and performance, makes them of great use in the organization. It probably does.

But—and this is a very big but—every time a great new idea is submitted to a boss, it creates more problems for him—and he already has enough.

There are plenty of great innovation models that combine organized brainstorming with a systematic, well-organized process for converting technology-driven and marketing-driven new ideas into new value for the customer.

Indeed, these "making innovation happen" models also cover situations in which R&D and marketing share responsibility for both developing an idea and making it come alive. (We will discuss this in future articles)

With systems like this, ideas have a purpose and it becomes an organizational practice to decide whether or not the idea should be pursued, funded and staffed appropriately.

In short, ideation becomes a component of the total innovation system that is capable of producing purposeful innovation. Idea people will automatically realize ideas require more than talk. They require constructive action. These kinds of systems will reduce "idea diarrhea,” and hopefully, produce more innovators.


Come to L&D in a Time of Great Change and learn how to institute learning programs that prepare executives/managers for producing and managing innovation & entrepreneurship within the existing organization.

RECOMMENDED