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 former Harvard Business School 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.’"

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 I've 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?

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 and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, and detail the role of training and continuous learning in achieving purposeful, measurable innovation.

Good Management and Good Ideas

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

What is not said: It takes a special kind of management to put a good idea into action — 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.

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.

3M's approach to innovation: Making ideas happen

Certain companies have earned an outstanding reputation for successful and continuous innovation. Heading most lists is the Minneapolis-based 3M, maker of more than 60,000 products including contact lenses, Post-it notes, Scotch tape and the like.

3M is a company that knows how to take a good idea and convert it into a profitable, new business. The company believes in creating the entrepreneurial equivalent of smallness within their organization. They create an environment where people eagerly seek a "chance of a lifetime" without lifetime injury to their career chances at 3M.

Countless articles have been written about the company's venture management team system and its pioneering of "internal entrepreneurship" that enables the company to launch more than 200 new products every year.

Writing about 3M, marketing guru Philip Kotler said: "Anyone who is hot about an idea is encouraged to do some homework to find out what knowledge exists, where the product would be developed in the company, whether it is patentable, and how profitable it might be."

The company's renowned 15 percent rule, which has been imitated by many companies allows employees to spend up to 15 percent of their time "bootlegging" – working on projects of personal interest.

When a promising idea comes along, notes Kotler, a venture team is formed with representatives from R&D, manufacturing, sales, marketing, and legal. Executive champions lead the team and works to protect team members from bureaucratic intrusion.

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. (See sidebar on 3M for more information.)

Yet many organizations are prone to colossal blunders when it comes to encouraging and supporting true innovation. It seems to me, 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.

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 is an acquired skill. It can be taught, learned, and practiced. Serious-minded internal training organizations understand this and take steps to become change leaders.

With fleeting modesty, I strongly believe our Corporate Learning Week 2013 conference and the Corporate Learning Network's continuing coverage on the subject of training for innovation is in a league by itself.

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, I 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 believes 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.