Understanding the Paradoxes of Creativity and Innovation in the Workplace

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by Joe Hart | 29 July 2021

Key Insights

  • The idea journey describes the process of moving from ideation to innovation
  • Guidance on supporting creativity and innovation in the workplace often suggests ideas that are seemingly contradictory.
  • These apparent paradoxes include the value of deep relationships vs. wide networks and the importance of the individual vs a group in creating and developing ideas, conflict vs cooperation, and whether diversity or homogeneity on a team is more beneficial for innovation.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a a paradox is something that combines contradictory features or qualities. Leaders that are committed to enhancing innovation in their organizations are faced with several seemingly contradictory ideas. On what, exactly, should organizations focus on if they want to establish a more innovation-friendly environment? Should they hire creative individuals and give them time alone to invent? Encourage tight-knit teams or broad networks of relationships? Facilitate productive conflict or encourage friendly cooperation? Hire for diverse talent to drive creativity, or not? If the answers to these questions aren’t immediately apparent, it’s because these are the paradoxes of creativity.

From Creativity To Innovation

Before we get into these paradoxes, let’s take a look at the journey that a creative idea takes to become an innovative reality, which researchers Perry-Smith and Mannucci describe in their paper “From Creativity to Innovation”. The four phases include idea generation, idea elaboration, idea championing and idea execution. In the first, an individual comes up with the novel concept. During the second, the concept is evaluated, clarified, and further developed. Next, the idea is promoted to those who have the power to grant permission and allocate resources to turn the idea into an innovative product, process, service, etc. Finally, the idea is executed in its tangible form. Understanding the journey sheds light on the paradoxes.

 Creativity: An Individual or Team Sport?

History is full of examples of solo creative geniuses, yet the saying goes that “great minds think alike.” The truth is somewhere in between. While creative ideas are generated in a single person’s mind, a novel idea does not come out of nowhere. Take, for example, the telegraph.

In the early 19th century, the British inventors Cooke and Wheatstone filed a patent for an electromagnetic communications system. Shortly after, Samuel Morse filed a similar patent in the United States. These innovators had the same creative idea before they ever met. But their simultaneous invention was not coincidence. In fact, this kind of “multiple discovery” may be the rule rather than the exception.

That’s because human creativity and ideas are built upon the discoveries, creations, and inventions of others. Evolutionary biologist Joe Henrich believes, “Rather than the product of individual innovators, these inventions can be thought of as the product of our societies. Innovations rely on individuals learning from others—in that way, human society functions like a collective brain.”

For the collective brain to work, it requires a large number of what Mark Granovetter in 1973 coined as “weak ties.” These are peripheral relationships and acquaintances, with whom you interact occasionally but don’t share deep relationships. Granovetter studied the importance of weak ties in finding a job, but the same argument can be applied to creativity.

Both Weak Ties and Strong Ties Matter for Innovation

Steve Jobs famously said that “Creativity is just connecting things.” Put simply, weak ties provide individuals with more things to connect. The information and perspectives that come from interactions with our weak ties tend to differ from those that come from our strong ties, since we often share very similar information sources and perspectives with close friends and colleagues. When it comes to sparking idea generation, weak ties win.

But weak ties cannot bring that idea to reality. In fact, a creative idea risks never being shared and developed unless the person who came up with it has strong, trusting relationships. It is to these strong ties that people are comfortable revealing their ideas because they can do it without risk of ridicule or rejection. Idea elaboration relies on strong ties.

At the same time, humans can typically manage only a limited number of “strong tie” relationships. So when it comes to promoting a creative idea to the people in position to give it the go ahead, broad networks come back into play. Think six degrees of separation: by “borrowing” the networks of others, the owner of the creative idea can reach and influence the people with the power to align the needed resources to move forward.

Conflict Is Good, and So Is Cooperation

Rarely does a new idea emerge in its best possible form. The innovation journey requires productive conflict. In several studies, conflict was found to boost creativity. During the idea elaboration phase people must be willing to question the idea, debate its value, and provide proposals to improve it.

Yet it’s easy to imagine the impact of too much of a good thing. Teams with constant conflict aren’t welcoming places for sharing new ideas and when it comes time for idea execution, debate is often counter-productive and its cooperation that’s needed. For optimal creative performance, teams need to be good at creating and maintaining psychological safety, disagreeing agreeably, and providing and accepting constructive feedback.

 Diversity Can Foster Better Ideas, But Not If It’s at the Expense of Team Cohesion

As the importance of weak ties suggests, diversity of thought, experiences, backgrounds, knowledge bases, and perspectives is critical for creativity. This type of deep-level diversity often-but not always-coincides with diversity of race, culture, gender, age, etc. Yet diverse teams often struggle to achieve the team cohesion necessary later in the innovation journey.

Navigating the Paradoxes of Creativity

Understanding the interpersonal factors at play throughout the journey from a novel idea to innovation can help leaders navigate the creativity paradoxes and promote a work environment more conducive to innovation.

The innovation journey requires broad networks and deep, trusting relationships, both of which can be strengthened through the application of human relations principles. It benefits from skilled facilitation of productive conflict and capable leadership that results in cohesive teams that cooperate well together. And it’s fueled by deep-level diversity that is ideal for innovation, and can be sustained through transformational leadership and genuine inclusivity.

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