February 2012 | 

Creating a Culture of Creativity: Think Different, Lead Different

culture of creativity

The new Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs has been read by millions of executives since its release in October. The book broke records world-wide: pre-sales in Hong Kong rivaled those of the last Harry Potter novel, and it was Amazon's best-selling book of 2011. The story of one of the most creative minds in recent memory comes at a time when leaders across industries, continents, and cultures are recognizing the need to, as Jobs put it, "think different."

However, is the message of Isaacson's book primarily one of inspiration — Jobs as a rare creative genius — or is there a bigger picture? Wharton marketing professor Jerry Wind notes, "It's terrific that Apple had a leader as creative as Jobs, but organizations shouldn't depend on a single individual for creativity. Effective leaders create an environment in which everyone becomes more creative, and that creativity is encouraged and supported. If a company is only as creative as its CEO, can it succeed without him or her? That remains to be seen."

Wind recently spent a day with senior executives in Wharton's Advanced Management Program, providing a set of tools to enhance individual creativity and to create a more creative culture. The ultimate goal, he says, is to increase the creativity of everyone in the organization. "Becoming a more creative organization is the best way to meet your key challenges, capitalize on opportunities, and achieve stretch objectives," says Wind. But that doesn't simply mean hiring creative people, which demonstrates an underlying belief that creativity is limited to a lucky few. Wind notes that a positive first step is to debunk that belief, demystifying creativity: "It's not a case of either having it or not having it. Of course there are some highly creative people, but everyone can improve. It's up to leaders to design an environment that unleashes the power of creativity, encouraging and rewarding it, and using tools to generate more of it."

Tools and Approaches that Work

Wind's work with hundreds of CEOs from around the globe revealed that the biggest obstacle to effective corporate transformation is the mental models of the executives involved. "When your environment is changing quickly and dramatically, old ways of thinking don't allow you to operate effectively. You have to challenge and ideally change your mental models of both your organization and your industry."

Wind cites some of the breakthrough innovations that have resulted from challenges to mental models, noting that many involved rethinking entire industries, including the Sayaka Capsule Endoscope, the $2000 Tata Nano car, and Starbucks. Some startling mental models were revealed when executives in the Advanced Management Program discussed some of their current approaches used to address key challenges and identified the models underlying them. "When you take the time to really think about why you continue to do things in a certain way, you may realize that the assumptions those actions are based on are no longer valid," he says.

Wind shared more that 15 approaches for challenging mental models that have been used successfully in a wide range of industries. They help to create novel and powerful competitive advantages that are difficult for the competition to respond to, by upsetting the status quo, changing the rules of the game, and/or increasing value to the customer. One such approach is engaging consumers in traditionally in-house roles, such as designers (think Nike), pricers (think priceline.com), and marketers (think Ford Fiesta). Another is destroying your brand. "Do you ever think like a competitor?" asks Wind. "Often there are people inside the organization who can see a threat coming, but their 'contrarian' views are not welcomed. By legitimizing alternative viewpoints, you can identify threats before they materialize and use the insights to strengthen your brand."

Wind notes that a variety of approaches are needed in a turbulent environment. "Today there is no one 'optimal strategy' that you can run with; the term has become an oxymoron. Companies need to use tools like adaptive experimentation to continuously and creatively identify competitive options. It can't be the job of one leader. That leader must develop an environment in which these approaches are used by many.

"Today the need to break away from current mental models is acute. Old assumptions yield old results. We need leaders who embrace creativity, who encourage and support an innovative mindset throughout their organizations. It's not enough to know you need it, to think different. Now it's time to do something about it."