Creativity is not result, it’s a process

Creativity is all about generating as much ground-breaking ideas as possible. You put up idea boxes in the canteen, organise regular brainstorming sessions and your organisation will be brimming with creativity, on the forefront of innovation in no time. Right? Not quite. “Statistics show that only few ideas actually get implemented. Granted, not all ideas are feasible, but implementation often fails because organisations lack a proper innovation process,” explains Professor Katleen De Stobbeleir. In an award-winning research paper, Katleen, Professor Marjolein Caniëls and Inge De Clippeleer offer an original perspective: they see organisational creativity as a process rather than a result and argue that each of the stages of this process requires a different approach, i.e. what helps the process in one stage, may hinder it in another stage.

Five antecedents, three stages

Previous research had identified five antecedents of, or critical success factors for, organisational creativity: (1) individual mindset, (2) rewards, (3) co-workers or group composition, (4) leadership and (5) organisational resources. The research team defined organisational creativity as a multistage process consisting of three phases: (1) idea generation, (2) idea promotion and (3) idea implementation. Katleen: “The question, then, is which factors are relevant for which phase, and how.”

In-depth interviews

The team conducted a total of 36 in-depth interviews with creative professionals from theatre, photography, literature, painting et cetera and knowledge workers from different industries such as ICT, consultancy, communications and engineering. These interviews covered 22 cases. For each case, the primary informant was the person who had initiated the idea. Their information was complemented by interviews with the cases’ key stakeholders e.g. peers, senior managers and other team members. “Our interviewees all recognised the stages we’d identified, which was reassuring,” Katleen says, smiling.

Each phase requires a different mindset

Surely, creativity is all about being creative, isn’t it? “Having a creative mindset and being open to experiences and feedback is especially important in the idea generation phase,” explains Katleen. “For the idea promotion phase, however, a communicative personality is a plus. When you’re trying to sell your idea to potential promotors, you should stop seeking feedback, otherwise you risk giving the impression that your idea hasn’t been thought through. And finally, the implementation phase requires you to be flexible to deal with the unforeseen and well-organised and result-oriented, willing to go the extra mile.”

Mind the timing of rewards

Some companies reward their employees if they come up with a good idea, for example by granting them the title of employee of the month. But Katleen warns that this may not be the best practice: “While this visibility may be flattering and stimulate idea generation, we’ve found that it actually jeopardises the idea implementation. It sends out the message that generating ideas is enough. It’s better to keep the reward until the idea has been translated into a product or service.”

Don’t you risk overlooking the idea generators? They may not be involved until the end? Katleen nods in agreement: “That’s why it’s important to keep track of who’s been involved at some stage in the creative process to ensure that at the end of the day everyone’s contribution is recognised. Postponing the reward may also stimulate idea generators to stay involved longer. Also, rewards don’t need to be financial. Recognition is just as well, if not better – especially for those who came up with the idea in the first place.”

Each phase calls for a different type of diversity

Do you need homogeneous or heterogeneous teams? Katleen: “It depends. We found that the idea generation phase benefits from teams made up of people with different personalities, different backgrounds and complementary knowledge and expertise. You want the team members to exchange ideas and challenge each other without being judgemental or negative. But for idea promotion you want diversity in the networks of the team members to ensure as wide a reach as possible. Idea implementation is a real team effort. At this stage complementarity in team roles and expertise is crucial.”

Adapt your leadership style to the needs of each phase

The study showed that, during idea generation, hierarchical leadership hinders creativity. Ideally, everyone in the team has an equal voice, with the leader taking up a facilitating role. Idea promotion benefits from a leader with high credibility, an established reputation and who is closely connected to influential people. During the implementation phase there needs to be a coordinator who takes decisions. This stage calls for hierarchical leadership.

“All in all, organisational creativity demands flexible leaders,” says Katleen. “But the challenge is not so much the switching between leadership styles, it’s knowing when to take up which role. Comes the implementation phase, many leaders loose interest. But it’s then that they should play a more active role. Leaders who are closely involved in the idea generation phase may inadvertently stifle creativity.”

Different organisational resources support different stages of the creative process

Organisational resources can be roughly divided into three categories: (1) access to information, knowledge and expertise, (2) funds, time and competencies and (3) endorsement and backing. During idea generation, people mainly need access to information, knowledge and expertise. During idea promotion, rather than access to technical knowledge and expertise, political intelligence is required as well as endorsement and backing of the organisation. A transparent organisational structure is then most helpful. Lastly, not surprisingly, idea implementation is most stimulated by funds, time and competencies.

Contradictory results explained

Some previous studies have shown contradictory outcomes with regards to the positive or negative impact of each of the antecedents of organisational creativity. These inconsistencies may be due to the fact that these studies approached creativity as an outcome variable rather than a process. “Most organisations don’t have a creative process. By analysing facilitating factors and management practices and identifying in which stage they contribute positively and in which stage they don’t, we hope to help them realise that organisational creativity is a process, and much more than stimulating the generation of ideas,” says Katleen. And she concludes: “In a nutshell: companies should design a structured approach to the creative process and put different accents on different factors in each of the phases of this process.”

Source: The paper “The Antecedents of Creativity Revisited: A Process Perspective” was published in Creativity and Innovation Management 23(2), 96-110. It was awarded the Tudor Rickards and Susan Moger Best Paper Award 2014, which is voted for by CIM editorial board members.

About the authors
Katleen De Stobbeleir is Associate Professor of Leadership and Coaching at Vlerick Business School. Marjolein C.J. Caniëls is Full Professor of Organisational Learning at the Open University of the Netherlands. Inge De Clippeleer is a Senior Research Associate and Lecturer in Career Management at Vlerick Business School.

& Rankings

Equis Association of MBAs AACSB Financial Times