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How Organizational Leaders Can Foster Creativity and Innovation Through Disciplined Processes


In today's fast-paced business environment, innovation is essential for organizational success and survival. However, fostering creativity within teams and companies requires more than just fun workspaces and casual brainstorming sessions. True innovation is the product of focused, disciplined effort guided by processes and leadership.


Today we will explore key findings from research on creativity and discusses practical steps organizational leaders can take to cultivate innovative thinking while maintaining accountability and drive toward execution.


Understanding the Creative Process


Research on creativity provides valuable insights into how innovative ideas form and progress. At their core, all creative processes involve two key phases - divergence and convergence (Guilford, 1950). The divergence phase is exploratory in nature, focused on generating many novel ideas and suspending judgment. Conversely, the convergence phase is about focusing creative energies, evaluating options systematically, and bringing ideas to fruition through implementation. Both are necessary for innovation to occur, yet each requires a different mindset and set of behaviors.


Creativity researchers Amabile and Pratt (2016) build on this model in identifying three distinct stages within innovation efforts: preparation, incubation, and illumination. During preparation, individuals deeply immerse themselves in a problem domain through research, brainstorming freely associating. The incubation period follows, where conscious work shifts to unconscious processing as ideas percolate in the background. Illumination emerges when a solution unexpectedly comes to mind, often when attention has shifted elsewhere (Kounios & Beeman, 2014).


These theoretical frameworks highlight that while divergent thinking fuels the generation of novel concepts, structured evaluation and action are also needed to refine and execute on creative ideas. Innovation demands discipline as well as play.


Establishing Best Practices for Innovation Processes


Armed with an understanding of the creativity cycle, leaders can develop organizational processes that balance divergent and convergent thinking at each stage of innovation. Some effective practices include:


  • Dedicated Brainstorming Sessions: To encourage idea generation, leaders should carve out regular time for brainstorming with a clearly defined problem or opportunity in mind. Adopting a "Yes, and..." approach and suspending judgment fosters divergent thinking (Osborn, 1963).

  • Post-Session Idea Refinement: After divergent brainstorms, leaders should facilitate convergence by having participants systematically group, evaluate, refine and prioritize top concepts. Establishing selection criteria prevents bias (Cross, 2004).

  • Incubation Through Immersive Exploration: Provide time and resources for deep exploration into selected ideas through research, prototyping or field study. Immersing in a problem domain fuels the unconscious processing of incubation (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996).

  • Check-Ins and Milestones: Schedule periodic checkpoint meetings with clear milestones to evaluate progress and refine direction through feedback. This convergence keeps efforts focused while allowing for flexibility (Tushman & O'Reilly, 1997).

  • Cross-Functional Interaction: Creativity benefits from bringing together varied perspectives. Leaders foster divergent input and convergence around solutions by involving different business functions in innovation projects (Goldenberg et al., 2001).

  • Post-Mortems and Knowledge Sharing: After initiatives conclude, conduct post-mortems to capture learnings. Then, systematically share knowledge across the organization to improve future processes through convergent refinement (Sutton & Hargadon, 1996).


Enabling Creativity Through Leadership Actions


To embed these best practices and support a culture where innovation thrives, leaders must reinforce certain behaviors organization-wide through their own actions and communication. This includes:


  • Modeling Curiosity - Leaders set the tone by asking questions, exploring new areas, and learning continuously (Gloor, 2006). This inspires others to divergently seek novel ideas.

  • Championing Failure - Sharing failures openly and drawing learnings from missteps trains teams that setbacks are part of discovery and should not deter future divergent thinking (Sitkin, 1992).

  • Providing Autonomy - While maintaining accountability via milestones and check-ins, leaders empower teams with autonomy over directional decisions. This fuels intrinsic motivation for divergent exploration (Amabile & Khaire, 2008).

  • Recognizing Contributions - Both incremental progress and "big wins" deserve recognition in all phases to incentivize participation in divergent and convergent processes alike (Gagné & Deci, 2005).

  • Communicating Vision - An inspiring long-term vision combined with transparent short-term goals provides the strategic context that gives purpose to divergent and convergent efforts across the organization (Collins & Porras, 1994).


Applying Innovation Processes


The following example illustrates how these principles can be applied in practice across specific stages of innovation.


  • Preparation: Brainstorming New Product Ideas (Divergent): As a new head of R&D for an automotive company, John initiated quarterly brainstorming sessions for cross-functional teams. At the first session focused on new vehicle concepts, he introduced an open-ended challenge: "Reimagine what a family car could be in 10 years." During divergent brainstorming, ideas ranged widely from flying vehicles to shared autonomous pods. Participation was encouraged, with no idea deemed too "out there."

  • Incubation: Deep Dives into Top Concepts (Divergent/Convergent): After grouping concepts, the group prioritized a few top ideas including the notion of a modular vehicle. To support incubation, John provided resources for in-depth exploration into vehicle modularity and potential use cases. Teams worked autonomously, meeting occasionally for check-ins and feedback to refine understanding through convergence.

  • Illumination: Emergence of MVP Idea (Convergent): While immersed in research, one team had an insight - a modular vehicle could become a multigenerational shared "hub" for families. With momentum from check-in feedback, they converged ideas into a minimum viable product concept for a 7-seat autonomous modular vehicle. Presented as an unexpected illumination, the refined concept excited the organization.

  • Execution: Prototyping and Testing (Convergent): To evaluate feasibility, John supported a converged effort cross-functionally building a proof-of-concept prototype. Through structured market testing and further refinement, the illuminated concept gained momentum. Today, it represents a new flagship product in development for the automaker to address changing mobility needs through disciplined innovation.


Conclusion


Nurturing creativity requires careful thought as to how leadership can embed processes supporting both divergent and convergent phases seamlessly within any organization's culture and workflow. While play and exploration fuel innovative idea generation, disciplined evaluation, refinement and implementation are equally important. Leaders who understand creativity science and take action to foster both types of thinking set their companies up to consistently generate and execute on impactful new concepts. When guided effectively, disciplined innovation processes empower everyone to contribute meaningfully to an environment where new ideas can emerge and flourish.


References


  • Amabile, T. M., & Khaire, M. (2008). Creativity and the role of the leader. Harvard Business Review, 86(10), 100-109.

  • Amabile, T. M., & Pratt, M. G. (2016). The dynamic componential model of creativity and innovation in organizations: Making progress, making meaning. Research in Organizational Behavior, 36, 157-183. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.riob.2016.10.001

  • Collins, J. C., & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. HarperBusiness Essentials.

  • Cross, N. (2004). Expertise in design: An overview. Design Studies, 25(5), 427-441. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.destud.2004.06.002

  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. HarperCollins.

  • Gagné, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self‐determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26(4), 331-362. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.322

  • Goldenberg, J., Lehmann, D. R., & Mazursky, D. (2001). The idea itself and the circumstances of its emergence as predictors of new product success. Management Science, 47(1), 69-84. https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.47.1.69.10671

  • Gloor, P. A. (2006). Swarm creativity: Competitive advantage through collaborative innovation networks. Oxford University Press.

  • Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. American Psychologist, 5(9), 444-454. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0063487

  • Kounios, J., & Beeman, M. (2014). The cognitive neuroscience of insight. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 71-93. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115154

  • Osborn, A. F. (1963). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (3rd rev. ed.). Charles Scribner's Sons.

  • Sitkin, S. B. (1992). Learning through failure: The strategy of small losses. Research in Organizational Behavior, 14, 231-266.

  • Sutton, R. I., & Hargadon, A. (1996). Brainstorming groups in context: Effectiveness in a product design firm. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41(4), 685-718. https://doi.org/10.2307/2393872

  • Tushman, M. L., & O'Reilly, C. A., III. (1997). Winning through innovation: A practical guide to leading organizational change and renewal. Harvard Business School Press.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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