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6.4 Environmental Factors Affecting Creativity and Innovation

Creativity, invention, and innovation are driven by a series of little ahas.Sawyer (2006). When the little ahas are stitched together, they lead to innovative products, services, and business processes. Creative ideas are built on a tapestry of other ideas and the little ahas are the basis for both incremental and radical innovation.

Although innovation and creativity can emerge in a variety of settings and situations, some environments are more conducive to the creative process. In one large study, it was found that having a vision, being task-oriented, and engaging in external communication had a strong relationship to creativity and innovation.Cf. Hülsheger et al. (2009). The following section presents the environmental factors that encourage the creative process. They are drawn from a variety of sources including Sawyer,Sawyer (2006). Amabile, Hadley, and Kramer,Amabile, Hadley, and Kramer (2002). Goldenberg and Mazursky,Goldenberg and Mazursky (2002). and Nalebuff and Ayres,Nalebuff and Ayres (2003). and Michalko.Michalko (2006). The following environmental factors can facilitate the creativity and innovation in individuals, departments, and organizations:

Need a shared mission that is focused on a single goal. Creative and intellectual energy is not unlimited. If an individual or a group is working on too many projects, then it is difficult to focus on one particular problem. If the group has a shared mission, this will also lead to group cohesion and further contribution to solving a problem.

Create an atmosphere that facilitates one-on-one collaboration. Group meetings can sometimes provide focus and insight, and assist in bringing focus to the team. It, however, is the one-on-one collaboration that is most effective in fostering the little ahas and individual creativity. It is like reciprocal tutoring. Through discussion and dialog, both individuals, the tutor and student, are better able to understand and grasp their particular problem. This is true even when one individual has more knowledge than the other. The teacher often learns more than the student during discussions.

Promote risk-taking and permit failure. There are many paths in life that can lead one astray. Sometimes we can avoid them by gathering additional information, but many times we cannot know that a path is a dead end or is too roundabout until we travel the path. Risk-taking should be encouraged even when the risks are daunting. The road less traveled may be the right path. The idea of learning by making mistakes is the essential part of the learn-by-doing approach. Consider Steve Jobs. He is the prototypical example of failure leading to success. The path to success was fraught with disappointments including the Apple Lisa, the Power Mac G4 Cube, NeXT computers, and perhaps Apple TV. Counter these failures with the iPad one of the most successful technologies ever released.

Experimentation not only invariably involves some level of failure, but also leads to understanding and insight into what works. As illustrated in a later chapter, investing in a variety of projects diversifies risk and provides opportunities for the future. Making the right investment decision on the right projects and the right products is a combination of having the right information, intuition, and luck by learning-by-doing. Steve Jobs (Apple) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) intuitively or explicitly invested in real options by exploring the applicability of emerging technologies to create unique products and services.

Allocate quiet time and solitude in order to help individuals think inside the box. There are some creative people who have a special place to go when they want to solve a problem. Quiet time and solitude are essential for the creative process and generating the little ahas. Quiet time can be in an office, in a special room, inside a refrigerator box, during an evening run, on the treadmill, in bed, or in the shower. Isolation and quiet time facilitate the creative process. The first thing solitude does is to help us focus on the problem. Even if you are not focused on the problem during quiet time, the mind works in the background reorganizing knowledge and ideas to help solve a problem. For many people, the best time for solitude and creative work is during the first 2 or 3 hours in the morning. I call these hours the Golden Hours. The mind has spent the previous 8 hours organizing knowledge and is primed for problem solving and insight. There is some evidence that artists have their Golden Hours after 10 pm.Wang and Chern (2008). These so-called Night Owl Learners seek the cover of night and solitude to produce their creative endeavors.

Make things by developing prototypes and experimenting. A prototypeA real, workable, and quasi-usable system built economically and quickly with the intention of being modified. The original or mode on which something is based or formed. is a real, workable, and quasi-usable system built economically and quickly with the intention of being modified. As noted earlier, a key strategy for sparking creative activity is the learn-by-doing process. Learning by doing means that you make and build things, try experiments, and construct prototypes. Prototypes can be built for products and services, including software. A prototype is essential for learning about what you are trying to invent and also for illustrating proof of concept. The prototype is part of a continuous ongoing process of experimentation and review. If you need to write something or develop something that is artistically creative, then the same advice applies. The initial writing, photograph, painting, or sculpture is the prototype. The mantra of those involved in creative pursuits should be Prototype or Perish or Build or Bust.

Anyone can be creative. Half of the battle of being creative is convincing yourself and others that anyone can be creative. I sometimes hear friends and students say that they are not creative. Anyone can be creative; it just involves applying all of the following strategies:

  • Have a mission and focusing on a single goal
  • Need one-on-one collaboration
  • Take risks and permit failure
  • Need quiet time and solitude
  • Need to prototype and experiment
  • Work hard

In an ideal world, management would be responsible for creating an environment that is conducive to creativity. In reality, it is the individual’s responsibility to create such an environment by balancing time at work, at play, and at home that will match the desired level of creative activity. Everyone needs a bit of aha in his or her life.