June 2011 | 

Want Creativity? Be Prepared to Pay


"Your chairman of the board wants to see more risk taking? You eat risk takers for lunch." That was the reply of University of Pennsylvania associate professor Chuck Dwyer, who was consulting with a large oil company. Dwyer recalls that with the arrival of a new chairman and COO came a call for greater risk taking in the organization.

"I knew the environment well, after five years of work with the company. They didn't tolerate experimentation and its inevitable mistakes well. How could I encourage people to take risks under those circumstances? They said they wanted more creativity, but they weren't sure about how to handle it, and they weren't aware of the price they'd have to pay for it."

Dwyer, who is academic director of the Executive Education program Leading and Managing People, continues, "Creativity can be an enormous asset. It can lead to innovation, which is particularly important in today's rapidly changing environment. But if you're going to encourage it and hire more creative people, you have to be willing to incur the costs.

"Truly creative people can't be successfully managed the way others can. They're autonomous. They don't make good soldiers. Criticism must be encouraging and take the form of helpful feedback. Expecting them to show up at a specific time, meet deadlines with consistency, or sit in front of a computer all day is not realistic. Are you ready to deal with those kinds of issues?

"You should also keep in mind that the price of one great idea is typically a large number of terrible ones. Creativity includes a strong element of risk taking. It involves thinking about problem solving in unique ways, and developing unique solutions. Those ideas might be fascinating conceptually, but most of them aren't practical. Often, the barriers to implementation aren't even considered. Taking an idea from its conception to execution, or even thinking through how that might look, isn't typically a strong characteristic of a creative person."

Dwyer also notes that certain personality types are intimidated by those who are highly creative. This means in addition to altering management styles to suit creative people, challenges with other team members may arise. Creating an environment in which a "high-maintenance" creative person can thrive, one that involves less supervisory interference and more tolerance for experimentation, may appear to others as inequitable.

When asked about IBM's recent Global CEO study, in which a majority of those surveyed selected creativity as the factor "most crucial for future success," Dwyer responds, "I'm not sure how genuine those calls for creativity really are. I hear them, and I hear some say that Americans are more creative than others and that's what puts us ahead of the curve of the Japanese and the Koreans. But, creativity has its costs. If you're really serious about bringing in more creative people, or nurturing creativity in your employees, you should be prepared not just for the benefits, but for the costs as well. You can't get it for free."