From Startup to Maturity: how to un-kill creativity

Published at Innovation Excellence, September 29, 2015. http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2015/09/29/from-startup-to-maturity-how-to-un-kill-creativity/ 

In 1998 Teresa Amabile published the article How to kill Creativity at the Harvard Business Review. Believe it or not–it was an inspiring article for me. It inspired me not to find more way to kill creativity, but rather to understand how can established companies un-kill creativity and out-innovate startups. Those startups, according to Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma that came out a year earlier), will out-innovate established companies all the time. Both Amabile and Christensen agreed that established companies kill creativity (and thus innovation) by doing the wrong things for the right reasons.

In order not to confuse the terms innovation and creativity, I offer the following definition of the relationship:

Innovation is an organizational function that describes the company’s ability to introduce new and useful products, services, and processes. Creativity is an individual characteristic that describes the ability to create meaningful new ideas. Once a creative idea is generated by an individual, it still needs to be implemented by the company to become innovation.

In 2008, I embarked on the first step with a two-year doctoral research designed to answer: why are people more creative in startup companies than they are in established companies (the second step came later in understand what established companies can do to un-kill creativity and out-innovate startups). This was a case study of 21 participants from the technology world, who worked in business and technical disciplines, and all worked for both types of companies (startup and mature) and were therefore in a position to compare the two environments.

Summarizing all prior research on organizational climate for creativity, I narrowed down the list to 12 input factors, and one outcome (level of creativity). The following table describes the findings at a high level.

57% of the respondents felt more creative in the startup companies. 33% felt equally creative in both companies. 10% felt more creative in the established companies.

The strongest positive factors affecting creativity were: autonomy, external challenges (market, technology, etc.), team dynamics, and involvement (seeing the “big picture” and feeling the impact on company performance). The single strongest negative factor affecting creativity was organizational impediments (bureaucracy, formalization, and rigid processes). Job satisfaction was found to be positively correlated to creativity, but through the interviews it was apparent that all other factors affected creativity as well as job satisfaction, and thus job satisfaction became an output rather than an input. Other factors were found to have much lower impact on creativity than reported in previous studies. One factor (availability of resources) was found to have an opposite effect on creativity than previously discussed in research. This finding was covered in the Innovation Excellence article: Myth busted: does creativity need resources?

The results of the study are described in this modified conceptual framework diagram. Some of the factors are in a bold and underlined font, indicating that the effect of those factors on creativity, as experienced and described by the participants, was strong. The factors described with standard font indicate that those factors were described by the participants as having lower impact on their creativity. For each factor, there is an arrow going from it to the “spine” (the link between individuals and the creative ideas they generate), indicating a positive (+) or negative (-) impact on creativity, as experienced and described by the participants. The diagram begins at the top showing the external challenges, which have a positive impact on creativity.

These challenges have intellectual, technical, survival-related, and market-related elements. Organizational impediments to creativity have a negative effect on creativity, and are made of internal challenges, formalization, bureaucracy, and complex and non-optimized processes. Team dynamics were shown to have a mixed impact on creativity, with open communications and idea debate having a positive effect on creativity, while internal competition and personal conflict having a negative effect on creativity. This study revealed that trust was a key element of team dynamics that affected all four, so it was illustrated as a core element in team dynamics. Although not shown in this diagram, trust was shown to be affected by geographical and cultural differences, time together, friendships, churn, and perceived competency of team members.

Resources have a negative impact on creativity (the less resources available to the participants, the more they felt creative), although not a very strong one.  Autonomy has a strong, positive effect on creativity, but it is affected by supervisory support which, in turn, is affected by the respect that employees have towards their supervisor. The respect towards the supervisor also affects one of the three types of recognition described by participants—informal recognition.  In mature companies, participants who described lack of respect towards their supervisor did not appreciate informal recognition by their supervisor. It should be noted, though, that in startup companies, participants cared less for informal recognition in general, even when they respected their supervisors.  All three types of recognition have positive effect on creativity.

Dynamism was a factor that was new to the framework of this study, and emerged out of the narratives. As described by the participants—it had seven elements: (1) the impact participants felt they had on the success of the company or project; (2) their ability to view the big picture; (3) filling multiple roles; (4) starting with a clean slate; (5) the diversity of backgrounds, experience and knowledge; (6) risk taking; and (7) loving the product and the positive impact it has on society.

CONCLUSION

Several conclusions came out of this study (and work I have done in the 5 years following that):

  1. While the majority of participants felt more creative in startup companies, 10% of them felt more creative in established companies, indicating that all is not lost for established companies.

  2. In order to “un-kill” creativity in established companies, work needs to take place at three levels: the company climate, the team dynamics, and the individual (see my article Who is responsible for innovation in my company?)

  3. Increasing levels of creativity and innovation do not necessarily mean a high investment in research and development (see Myth busted: does creativity need resources? )

  4. Some of the factors (e.g., autonomy) may be conflicting with “normal” company business imperatives (such as coordination and efficiency), but are not required to apply to the entire company, only to the creative core (see The creativity nuclear reactor: must everyone in the company be creative?)

image credit: bigstockphoto.com; Drawings by Yoram Solomon

- See more at: http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2015/09/29/from-startup-to-maturity-how-to-un-kill-creativity/#sthash.b3pFpbzE.dpuf