Curiosity, Creativity and Innovation have become sexy topics in the business community, business schools and the business press over the past decade. Following are a handful of examples from some recent articles:
“Innovation. These days, there’s hardly a mission statement that doesn’t include it, or a CEO who doesn’t promote it.“
What Innovation? Stop Trying So Hard (Goman, Carol Kinsey. Forbes, 2/21/2012)
“The qualities that set [successful] people apart” are “Passionate curiosity. Battle-hardened confidence. Team smarts. A simple mind-set. Fearlessness.”
Distilling the Wisdom of C.E.O.’s (Bryant, Adam. New York Times, 4/17/2011)
“For the first time, research shows that American creativity is declining” in part due to a “focus on standardized curriculum, rote memory and nationalized testing.”
The Creativity Crisis (Bronson, Po and Merryman, Ashley. Newsweek, July 10, 2010)
“Innovation and creativity courses were slow to catch on but have spread like wildfire…. students are learning all sorts of techniques to help them think outside the box.”
Creativity comes to B-School (Gangemi, Jeffrey. Businessweek, March 26, 2006)
There truly is a lot of public ‘buzz’ surrounding Curiosity, Creativity and Innovation.
Why? Because there is real need in the market for Curiosity, Creativity and Innovation.
As Gary Hamel states in a recent Forbes interview conducted by Dan Schawbel, (Forbes, February 17, 2012), “If you look at management as it’s been built and developed over the last hundred years, it was essentially developed around the ideology of control. How do you make sure people are conforming to work standards to quality standards to budgets and process rules and so on and there’s enormous value in that.”
In essence, the past several decades saw many companies maniacally focused on inward-looking cost containment initiatives. As Hamel points out, the benefits of Continuous Improvement (CI), Total Quality Management (TQM) initiatives are undeniable and well documented. But as these initiatives approach maturation (meaning the significant benefits have already been had), executives are seeking a more balanced approach, whereby leveraging CI in conjunction with a renewed focus on growing the top line. The problem is that the management and leadership skills needed to implement and execute CI or TQM programs don’t necessarily lend themselves to innovative top line growth. Innovation is the engine of organic top line growth and today’s businesses want talent with innovation skills and competencies.
It does seem as though we’ve truly entered a new era where Creative and Innovative talent is being sought and highly valued. However, I feel there is confusion, or at least a lack of clarity about what the terms Curiosity, Creativity and Innovation actually mean.
The balance of this article will take a look at what business leaders mean when they use these terms and how that can vary from what people think they mean, and what they actually mean. My hope is that the following discussion will provide some useful understanding and valuable insight to these important topics.
A 2008 study by The Conference Board, (Ready to Innovate), set out to understand how important “Creativity” is to today’s business leaders and find out what skills or traits these leaders were seeking in the new leaders and managers. Prior research by The Conference Board had revealed that business executives felt that new managerial talent was lacking in “desired creative skills.” 97% of the 155 business executives surveyed in the 2008 study, “agreed that creativity is of increasing importance in the workplace.”
The executives in this study were additionally asked to rate the traits and skills they felt best demonstrated creativity. The top three skills or traits that employers were:
1) Problem identification or articulation (47%),
2) Ability to identify new patterns of behavior or combinations of actions (46%), and
3) Integration of knowledge across different disciplines (42%).
In essence, from this data, it seems that business executives want people who are perceptive, and have the ability to connect the dots.
These results are curious to me (pun intended), in that the top three skills might not actually lead to an outcome of any sort – and I would have thought that was what business leaders were looking for out of creative people. It is important to note however that the respondents were asked to check the top three (out of many) skills they felt best demonstrated creativity. So perhaps, the respondents feel that creativity is more of an “internal” trait or characteristic.
Maybe it’s just me…
As I began to think about these results more, something just wasn’t sitting right with me; but I wasn’t sure why. I had this bothersome thing in the back of my mind simmering on low; that bothersome thing just kept nudging me. Finally, I had to admit that the reason this kept bothering me was that I wasn’t entirely clear myself on how I defined curiosity and creativity.
OK, I admit it. I’ve never really spent much time thinking about what curiosity actually meant. Which I guess is a bit ironic given that I tend to think of myself as being a naturally curious individual. It’s just one of those words I’ve used over the years, without much serious thought regarding its true meaning.
So, what is curiosity?
I guess I’ve casually thought about curiosity as inquisitiveness, a desire to understand, or even a drive to learn. Curiosity does strike me as something that is innate; something internal. Curiosity is something that… is just there. However, due to the motivation of my nudge, I began to wade into some research on “curiosity” – it wasn’t long however before I took a full-on swim in the ocean.
Curiosity, has long been a subject of inquiry and study with references dating back prior to the times of Aristotle. Lowenstein in “The Psychology of Curiosity” (Psychological Bulletin, 1994), starts out by stating that “curiosity has been consistently recognized as a critical motive that influences behavior in both positive and negative ways at all stages of the life cycle.” Kagan in “Motives and Development” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972) describes curiosity as the “motive for cognitive harmony.” Or put another way, “the need to know.” Thomas Gilovich in How We Know What Isn’t So (Free Press: 1993), states that humans “are predisposed to see order, pattern and meaning in the world and we find randomness, chaos and meaninglessness unsatisfying.”
I absolutely love how Clarence Leubna in “A new look at curiosity and creativity” (The Journal of Higher Education, 1958), underscores now how innate curiosity really is by stating that “examining, investigating and exploring – [are things] we label curiosity, and they are very evident as far down the animal scale as the rat and perhaps even farther.” So, curiosity is actually something that is just there – not only in humans but also in animals.
After more thought, I’ve come to the point where I think about this trait in terms of creatures utility seeking in an intrinsic economic decision framework. That is, creatures seek benefits derived from understanding, discovering and exploring. Curiosity’s utility is innate or instinctive, and is likely however motivated through two pathways.
The first motivation pathway of curiosity is associated with a nature’s primal defense mechanisms – more instinctively driven. This curiosity’s utility is protection and safety. It is a preparatory device for coping with and/or avoiding adverse outcomes to external changes.
Curiosity’s second motivation pathway is more proactively exploratory and seeking in nature. And while there may be traces of the first motivation pathway underlying the second, I feel this pathway is quite different. Meaning, that this curiosity’s utility is expansionary. The motivation is a prospective “gain” to be had by knowing more through examining, investigating, exploring and discovering. I consider this to be a higher-order level of curiosity – which has greater linkage to creativity. This higher-order level of curiosity is a necessary (but not sufficient) ingredient for creativity.
I think about creativity as a trait (i.e., she has an amazing amount of creativity). I also think about creativity as being a process – (i.e., that widget is the result of a lot of creativity). According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, creativity is “the quality of being creative or the ability to create.” But, the challenge is in how you describe the quality of being creative – without using the term “creative.”
Robert Franken in Human Motivation (Wadsworth Publishing, 2006), does it brilliantly in my estimation, and defines creativity as “the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.” How cool is that!
Thus, the trait creativity involves one’s abilities to perceive, assemble, synthesize, envision, generate and leverage stimuli and ideas in unique ways. This however is only part of the creativity equation. As noted earlier, Creativity is also a process.
Creativity the Process:
The creative process, as originally detailed by Graham Wallas in The Art of Thought (Harcourt, Brace, 1926) entails the following four steps
• Preparation – Time spent actively learning, synthesizing and hypothesizing
• Incubation – Time spent disengaged but subconsciously processing
• Illumination – The aha moment
• Verification – Testing, refining and finalizing the solution
Paul Torrance (the father of creativity) in “Understanding Creativity: Where to Start?” (Psychological Inquiry, 1993), elaborates upon Wallas’ above notion of ‘creativity as a process,’ as follows:
“First, there is a sensing of a need or deficiency, random exploration, and a clarification or pinning down of the problem. Then ensues a period of preparation accompanied by reading, discussing, exploring, and formulating many possible solutions and then critically analyzing these solutions for advantages and disadvantages. Out of this comes the birth of a new idea – a flash of light, illumination. Last, there is experimentation to evaluate the most promising solution for eventual selection and perfection of the idea.”
It is worth noting at this point how much alignment there is between Torrance’s description of the creative process, Wallas’ first three Creativity steps and the top three creativity traits identified by executives in The Conference Board’s study.
Finally, Torrance goes on to explain that the potential outcomes of this process could be the creation of new, novel or improved things ranging from ideas, to works of art, to physical items and processes. In other words, the Creative Process may lead to an innovation! In fact, the creative process is very much how people describe various steps of the innovation process. Much in the same way that curiosity is a necessary ingredient for creativity, Creativity is a necessary (but not sufficient) ingredient for innovation.
So, what is innovation? Similar to creativity, Innovation has two meanings; it is a thing as well as a process. While Innovation is showing up in the media left and right, there is still a lot of confusion about what innovation is and how it happens. C. K. Prahalad from the University of Michigan drives home this point as well.
“Many people talk about innovation, but few really have a deep understanding about how it works.”
(enterpriseleadership.org , July 23, 2008)
“How it works” underscores the fact that innovation is a process. And, this is the point I feel people miss and simply don’t understand. My definition of innovation is the following:
Innovation is the process of creating and delivering new, and differentiated consumer value in the marketplace, which can create a competitive advantage.
In order to create an innovation (a new thing which creates new consumer value), you have to employ the process of innovation. I think most will stipulate to the notion that innovation is an engine of economic (business) growth, and that it can create a competitive advantage, so I won’t spend time belaboring these points. I do however want to conclude by discussing the process of innovation.
In a prior article of mine entitled “Continuous Innovation and Continuous Improvement,” (brainzooming.com, Feb. 2, 2012), I outlined my notion that innovation is a three step process:
1) Identify - Find opportunities for new products or services,
2) Innovate – Create new products or services, and
3) Implement – Adopt the solution, rollout and scale.
In order to create a new innovative product, service, process or business, which creates new consumer value, one must employ each and all of these steps.
If one only identifies an opportunity (step one), they’ve exhibited curiosity and some steps of the creative process previously noted. But all they would have at this point is a thoughtful idea (perhaps not even a good one). That is it! An idea is not innovation.
If one were to identify an opportunity and create a prototype in their garage and stop there (steps one and two), they’ve exhibited curiosity and all of the steps in the creative process. They perhaps have something that might be an invention. But, they’ve not created any consumer value at this point. There are tens of thousands of patented inventions, which produce zero consumer value. For something to be an innovation, it must create or deliver new consumer value in the marketplace.
To create value through innovation, the right product needs to be selected, it needs to be produced and it needs to be distributed into the marketplace; where it is sold and reordered due to consumer demand. It is only after the creation of consumer value however that we can say we truly have innovation. And, not coincidentally as we’ve already pointed out, we also have benefitted from curiosity and creativity.
image credit: dceventjunkie.com
Bradley (Woody) Bendle is Director, Insights & Innovation at Collective Brands, Inc. and formerly a VP of Marketing, Customer Analytics & Strategic Systems at Blockbuster, and a consulting economist. His focus areas are: Brand & Market Strategy, Product & Service Innovation, Consumer Behavior, Quantitative & Qualitative Research Methods, and Applied Econometrics. (twitter – @wbendle)