[Published in The Management Accountant, Journal of the Institute of Cost and Works Accountant of India, Mar 2012]

The future belongs to the creatives.  In the emerging and future world of business, competitive advantage depends not on capital, not even on technology, information or knowledge but on creativity and innovation.  Those companies which are able to harness the creative and innovate energies of its people will be the leaders of the future.  How to do this at a collective or organizational level?  This question is one of the current debates in management.  This essay examines this question based on some of the latest studies and research on the subject and also on the Indian spiritual perspective and practices on creativity.

Tap ideas from all ranks

Invite ideas from all the levels of the organizational hierarchy and tap the creative potential of the whole organization.  Don’t depend on a few elite or “superstar” creatives.  This requires genuine empowerment of the front-line workers.  Recent research shows that giving complete autonomy and encouragement to the initiatives of workers at the lower level has enormous advantage.  For example, Google’s founders tracked the progress of ideas that they had backed versus ideas that had been executed in the ranks without support from above, and discovered a higher success rate in the latter category. Similarly, it was noted that Philip Rosedale, the founder and chairman of Linden Lab, the fast-growing company that manages Second Life, says the greatest successes come from workers’ own initiatives. (1)

Encourage and Enable Collaboration

Counteract the myth of the lonely innovator; encourage and reward collaborative effort; incorporate the ability or willingness to share ideas or collaborate with others into the performance appraisal system; create an environment which enables collaboration.

Recently Harvard Business Review brought out a special issue on “Collaboration.”  In an article in this issue, Paul Adler and his team of scholars, make the following observations based on their long and extensive research on what they call as “Collaborative Enterprise”:

  • Collaborative communities encourage people to continually apply their unique talents to group projects—and to become motivated by a collective mission, not just personal gain or the intrinsic pleasures of autonomous creativity. By marrying a sense of common purpose to a supportive structure, these organizations are mobilizing knowledge workers’ talents and expertise in flexible, highly manageable group-work efforts. The approach fosters not only innovation and agility but also efficiency and scalability.
  • Collaborative communities share a distinctive set of values, which we call an ethic of contribution. It accords the highest value to people who look beyond their specific roles and advance the common purpose.
  • The key coordinating mechanism of a collaborative community, which is often made up of overlapping teams, is a process for aligning the shared purpose within and across the projects. We call that type of coordination interdependent process management, a family of techniques including kaizen, process mapping, and formal protocols for brainstorming, participatory meeting management, and decision making with multiple stakeholders. (2)

Open the Organisation to diverse perspectives

Invite opinions, viewpoints and perspectives from diverse disciplines and social or cultural groups.  For example, the design firm IDEO includes engineers, psychologist, marketers and behavioural scientists in its innovation team.  Gender diversity is an important part of this process.  The perspectives of woman in the creative process can be a very precious input in a male dominated corporate environment. (3)

Map the Phases of Creative Work

Each phase of creative work requires different kinds of management.  For example, the first phase of the discovery or creating the new idea has to be totally unstructured with maximum freedom and autonomy for the members of the creative team.  Any attempt to standaradise this phase or structure it into a fixed format, would be counter productive.  The main objective of this stage is creative incubation and not standardized efficiency.  But the later stages of creativity when the idea moves form the stage of discovery to implementation can be structured or standardized for greater efficiency.  Similarly, each phase of the creative process may require different kind of people with temperament, talent and skill-set which correspond to that stage.  For example, the discovery phase requires people who are radical thinkers or paradigm-breakers.  But the subsequent phases require skill in operational management like resource allocation.

Find the Right Balance between Efficiency And Creativity

The corporate world in general tends towards process standardization which enhances efficiency, but it stifles creativity because there is not much freedom of choice, judgement or innovation in a rigidly standardized process.  But still efficiency is essential for effective operation management.  How to reconcile the need for standardized efficiency with creative freedom? Joseph Hall and Eric Johnson in their article in Harvard Business Review presents some useful suggestions. (4)

We have to distinguish and identify clearly what are the activities or domains where creative freedom is essential for adding value to the customer or the process.  In general, creative freedom is more important in those domains where large variety, fast change and uncertainty are the main driving factors and a quick response to the changing customer needs or environment is needed for gaining competitive advantage.  In such domain, standardization has to be kept to the minimum.   But in those domains where creative choice, judgement or innovations of individuals or teams do not add much value to the process or customer, standardization may be necessary.

For example, Ritz-Carlton gives large creative freedom for the front-line team made of desk managers, steward’s waiters and chefs to plan, innovate and decide what is best for serving the needs of individual customers, without any interference from higher management.  But at the same time, maintains carefully defined standards for cleaning rooms and other facilities.   Initially Carlton had a detailed well-defined list of instructions on how to serve or behave with the customer in every possible situation like for example, “use words like ‘good morning’, ‘certainly’ I’ll be happy to.’ ” But later Carlton management realized that such a standardized approach doesn’t give sufficient freedom for the frontline staff for innovation and flexible judgement to serve the needs of the individual customer.  So, the staffs guidelines are redesigned to keep them broad and vague like, “I am empowered to create unique, memorable and personal experiences for our guest.”  Customer satisfaction improved.

Manage the Commercialization Trade-off

Very few creatives have the capabilities to commercialize their ideas.  So, in many large organizations these two stages or functions are separated and kept away from each other.  But a problem with this method is that commercialisers don’t have the same passion for the idea as its creators.  As a result, quiet often, projects loose steam as they move from creative phase to the stage of commercialization.  The other alternative is to make the creatives and commercialisers work together in a team.  For example, as we have mentioned earlier, the design firm IDEO includes marketers in the design team along with idea-creators.

Minimize Dilution through Bureaucracy

As the idea passes from the discovery phase and moves through other departments like finance, engineering or sales, each trying to modify it according to their needs, the creative power of the idea gets considerably diluted.  Leaders and managers must make a conscious effort to counteract this dilution of the idea through bureaucracy.  One way of doing it to involve bureaucracy in the creative process.  We have to create a system or process by which the creative team which generates the idea and the operational management team which implements the idea work together.

Motivate People to Embrace the Creative Challenge

Management has to encourage people to constantly grapple with challenging problems and explore new possibilities and ideas.  The creative minds are fired by independence, autonomy and intellectual challenge and the organization must be able to provide such an environment where creativity can flower.  However, as we have indicated earlier, the attention of management should not be confined to a few exceptional creatives.  Every individual has a creative spark in her.  To bring it forward, we must make an effort to understand her unique interests, aptitude, skills and capabilities and provide a matching challenge.

The other important aspect of motivation, which is very much recognised, is appreciation.  In general creatives are self-motivated and love the intellectual challenge involved in creating something new.  But this doesn’t mean they are entirely free from the lure of external motivators.  They may become demotivated if their good works are not appreciated.  So a sympathetic and appreciative leader, who can understand precisely─through listening, dialogue and discussion─the motivational needs of each creative and keep them in high spirits by providing the right motivational inputs, can considerably boost the creative potential of a team.

Understand the Value of Failures and the Virtue Of Mistakes

The creative journey is a non-linear, unpredictable and uncertain process, which proceed through trial and error and experimentation.  Errors, mistakes and failures are inevitable and integral part of the creative path.  They are part of the learning process and must be viewed as opportunities for learning and growth.  As long as we are learning something new from our mistakes and failures, they must be seen and appreciated as positive virtues and not condemned or punished as signs of incompetence.  So leaders in charge of creative teams must tolerate mistakes and failures.  She has to cerate a culture of learning where people are trained to probe deep into the root causes of mistakes and failures and make this learning a stepping stone to future growth and success.

Create a Filtering Mechanism

Evolve a mechanism or process for filtering ideas, which means, selecting good ideas and weeding out the unfeasible ones.  According to the well-known management Guru Gary Hamel, the best way to do this is found in the Silicon Valley, where, “If an idea has merit, it will attract, venture capital and talent.  If it doesn’t wont.”  Gary Hamel believes that Silicon Valley model can be replicated within a company by creating a “dynamic internal market for ideas, capital and talents” and gives some examples to show how it can be done.  One of them is Royal Duth Shell Co. which had set up a panel for screening and funding creative ideas.  Any employee of Shell who has a creative idea is invited to give a ten-minute pitch to the panel, followed by a 15 minute Q & A session.  If the member agrees that the idea has real potential, the employee is invited to a second round of discussion with a broader group of company experts whose knowledge or support may be important to the success of the supposed venture.  Ideas that get the green light are provided with funds within eight or ten days. (5)

Include the Customer in the Creative Process

In the corporate world, creativity cannot be an end in itself but has to serve customer needs.  So, wherever possible it is better to include the customer in the creative process.  Here are two examples where customer makes a significant contribution to the creative development of a product:

  • Lego, Danish toy-maker invites the customers-children, parents and adults─to suggest ideas for product development.  Customers design their own products which are then sold to them.
  • Sony has set up a web-site to support customers who are interested in developing new type of games that could be played in the Sony Play Station.  It attracts nearly 10,000 participants, a number that vastly exceeds the number of in-house and contract developers creating games for the play station. (6)

Train People in Intuitive Thinking

The truly creative idea comes not from the logical and analytical intellect at the surface levels of our being but from the deeper levels of consciousness, which contains the intuitive faculties.  Sri Aurobindo describes intuition as, “rays from an intenser and greater Light than the tempered clarity of our intellectual understanding.” (7) To awaken or activate these faculties in employees they have to be trained in the following practices:

  1. How to receive intuition by keeping the surface mind silent
  2. How to arrive at the holistic insight or decision based on an understanding of the consequences for the larger whole of life.
  3. Integrative thinking, which means how to integrate two opposite ideas in a higher synthesis.

The main discipline for receiving intuition is to silence the surface intellectual mind.  As The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram explains the process:

“To learn to be quiet and silent—when you have a problem to solve, instead of turning over in your head all the possibilities, all the consequences, all the possible things one should or should not be doing, if you remain quiet with an aspiration for goodwill, if possible a need for goodwill, then solution comes quickly.  As you are silent you are able to hear it.” (8)

However this intuitive approach through mental silence requires a certain minimum level of mental development.  We must keep in mind that a lazy, underdeveloped mind full of inertia cannot remain silent, and if it tries to do so, it will slip into a black hole in the subconscious, where there is neither the light of reason nor intuition.  So a culture of deep and creative thinking provides a good mental foundation for the development of intuition in the individual or the group.

Here comes the importance of another method for developing intuition, which is to stretch the rational and logical mind to its utmost limits.  For example modern systems theory and ecological thinking which views each thing as part of a larger whole and tries to perceive the interconnected unity of all thing, can be a very good mental discipline for preparing the rational mind to receive intuition.

Role of the Leader: Pulling It Together

And finally comes the question what is the role of the leader in a creative team?  It is to orchestrate the team and hold it together.  The leader here is more of a system integrator than a commander.  His or her main tasks are:

  • Constantly remind and hold before the team-members the larger mission and the immediate targets.
  • Provide sufficient freedom and autonomy for the team members but at the same time motivate them to share their ideas and collaborate with others.
  • Resolve interpersonal conflicts and attend to the needs of the individual members and the team as a whole.
  • Monitor the progress of the creative process, provide feedback to the team-members and make course-corrections wherever necessary.

Elizabeth Long Lingo of Vanderbilt University, who has done extensive research on the production of country music, gives the example of the producer as a leader of a creative team.  The music business requires the integration of many parties like songwriters, publishers, artists.  The person who brings them all together is the producer.  He operates in the centre of the whole creative process without being the focus of attention.  He has to orchestrate the creative output of a diverse group of experts without over controlling them.  His task and his professional satisfaction come from helping others to realize their unique talents and achieve a collective goal-a hit record. (9)


  1. Amabile, Teresa and Khaire, Mukti (2008), ‘Creativity and the Role of the Leader,’ Harvard Business Review, October, p. 78-87.
  2. Adler, Paul and Heckscher, Charles and Prusak Laurence, (2011) ‘Building a Collaborative Enterprise,’ Harvard Business Review, July-Aug, 84-91
  3. Brown, Tim, (2008) ‘Design Thinking’ Harvard Business Review, June, p. 59-66.
  4. Hall, Joseph and Johnson Eric, (2009)‘When Should A Process Be Art, Not Science?’, Harvard Business Review March, p. 40-47
  5. Hamel, Gary, (1999) ‘Building Silicon Valley Inside,’ Harvard Business Review, Sep-Oct, p. 71-84.
  6. Cook, Scott, (2008), ‘The Contribution Revolution: Letting Volunteers Build Your Business’, Harvard Business Review, October, p. 38-44
  7. Sri Aurobindo, Collected Works, Vol.9, Future Poetry, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, p. 90
  8. The Mother, Collected Works, (1972) Sri Aurobindo ashram, Puducherry, Vol. 9, p. 422-23
  9. Amabile, Teresa and Khaire, Mukti (2008), ‘Creativity and the Role of the Leader,’ Harvard Business Review, October, p. 78-87.
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