The Creativity Nuclear Reactor: Must Everyone in the Company Be Creative?

Published at Innovation Excellence, September 1, 2015 (

Whenever I present to management teams what are the factors in the organization’s climate that affect creativity, I face skepticism. Research showed that factors such as autonomy, low formalization, and loose processes create a climate conducive to creativity. However, executives have a hard time seeing how a company could be run under those conditions. The last thing you want to see is “creative accounting.” Without very rigid processes–manufacturing and operations will not be effective nor productive. Autonomy might mean that company departments might not be coordinated. Maybe as companies grow, and especially when they become public, they simply cannot be creative anymore? The regulatory requirements associated with being a public company, and the liability considerations of having “deep pockets” alone might prevent the company from creating an environment supporting creativity.

But then you have to think about some of the most innovative companies in the world, such as Apple, 3M, and others. Do those companies not have rigid processes? Are they less than formalized? Do they give all their employees full autonomy to do what they think is right?

When I worked as a General Manager for one of the semiconductor business units at Texas Instrument, Apple was one of our clients. We had a part that went into the iPod. We saw the iPod grow to over 10 million units a year. In our meetings with Apple, I didn’t feel the environment that I now know is so important to creativity. I met a highly formalized team, with very strong processes in place, and not much autonomy that I could observe. In fact, it could be argued that Apple is more structured and process-driven than many other, less creative companies. So how can the same company be so innovative? And how can its employees be so creative?

The easiest way to explain this is by using the analogy of the nuclear reactor. I know, this sounds completely unrelated, but bear with me. A nuclear reactor has a core, in which the atomic chain reaction occurs. Due to the huge amount of energy created by that chain reaction–that core is embedded in a very heavy, impenetrable vessel, that can withstand that energy without letting it get outside. Control rods are placed inside that core, such that they absorb some of the electrons emitted as a result of the chain reaction and limit the amount of energy generated in the core. As the control rods are pulled gradually out of the core–the chain reaction increases, and more energy is generated and released.

The equivalent: the core is the creative team. Free flow of ideas (chain reaction) is enabled when the control rods (formalization, strict processes, lack of autonomy) are pulled out of the core. However, the hard, heavy, very rigid vessel is what prevents the core from exploding. While a company needs to create an environment supportive of free flow of ideas, an environment low on formalization and processes, and high on autonomy, this environment is required only for the creative team. Neither the manufacturing and operation teams, nor the accounting or administration teams can operate in the same “free flowing” environment. Those must remain rigid, formalized, with strict processes, and very little autonomy.

This is how Apple works. This is how every large, highly creative company works. It is not “creative” throughout the entire organization. only where it matters and is important.

While a CEO of a company is skeptic about the need to create the “loose” environment required to creativity–he or she are not thinking about the creative core team, they are worried about the rest of the company. And they are correct–the rest of the company does not need to have an environment conducive to creativity. The rest of the company needs to support operations, while letting the creative core be, well, creative…

And like a nuclear reactor, the sustainable strength of the company comes from its creative core.

image credit: Tysh