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Cultivating a culture of creativity

4 min read


Edison circa 1922 (Library of Congress)

Today marks the anniversary of Thomas Edison’s birth in 1847. Modern society owes a debt of gratitude to this man who invented the incandescent light bulb, phonograph and early movie cameras, amassing 1,093 U.S. patents for these and other inventions.

What can we learn from innovators such as Edison, especially in how they cultivated cultures of creativity and innovation?

Edison famously said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Continuous experimentation, learning from one’s failures and persevering were obvious aspects of the culture Edison cultivated among the team supporting him.

A closer look at Edison and other successful inventors shows that creativity and innovation are social in nature, and frequently arise when a fragment of knowledge from one domain is combined with a fragment in another domain. For example, the shoe was combined with the wheel to create roller skates, and the shape of a waffle was adapted to hold a scoop of ice cream, giving us the waffle cone. This process of connecting fragments of knowledge from different domains has been referred to as “blending” or “integrative thinking.”

When it comes to creativity and innovation, imagine these fragments of knowledge as tiny ceramic tiles spread out among different people or even across departments in your organization. To create a mosaic, the artist’s task is to gather the tiles and lay them out in a way that creates a beautiful image that only makes sense and can be appreciated when seen as a whole work. Organizational cultures either facilitate or hamper the process of discovering different tiles.

The first culture to consider is the culture of control where managers rule over those with less power, control, status and influence. This is a culture of fear. Fear to speak up. Fear to take risks. It’s difficult to discover new tiles in this type of culture because people are less open and less courageous to experiment. The second type of culture is a culture of indifference where people are so busy with their own tasks that they fail to develop relationships. Both of these cultures are low on cooperation and collaboration so they impede the sharing of knowledge.

The optimal culture for creativity can be described as a culture of connection. In this culture, employees feel connected to their supervisor, co-workers, senior leaders and customers. These feelings of connection spur communication and cooperation, creating a marketplace of ideas and knowledge that helps everyone contribute to making the mosaic.

A culture of creativity is what so many organizations today are missing. One data point that supports this view is Gallup’s employee-engagement figures showing nearly 7 out of 10 American workers are not engaged at work. They show up for the paycheck but don’t contribute to the conversation on creativity and innovation. That’s like thinking a bodybuilder will win a competition by working out with one arm and neglecting the other three limbs. It’s irrational. Gallup’s findings on engagement have essentially been flat for the past decade. Clearly, leaders need to rethink what they are doing that is negatively affecting the attitudes and behaviors of the majority of employees.

I’m encouraged that culture is becoming a hot topic in the business world. It is only by intentionally cultivating cultures that connect people — rather than control or neglect them — that we will spark job growth, the economy and America’s innovative spirit.

Michael Lee Stallard is president of E Pluribus Partners, a leadership consulting and training firm based in Greenwich, Conn. He is the author of “Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work,” to be published by ATD Press in April. Follow Stallard on his blogTwitter, FacebookGoogle+ or on LinkedIn.

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