There’s Nothing Random About Fostering an Environment of Creativity
Creativity has little space where tasks are practiced as regimentation. “Business unusual” is a catchphrase about doing things differently, to bring about change, to innovate. Times are becoming more complex. For economic gain, nature can no longer be simply considered as something to be “conquered” by people to extract wealth
Teachers in a school found a 7-year-old boy rather odd. His answers were seen as “different” so they tried their best to “educate” him.
Teacher: What does the cow give us?
Boy: Cow dung.
Teacher: That’s not a good answer. You should say “the cow gives us milk” like everyone else.
Boy: But why, Miss? Does the cow not give us dung?
Teacher (irritated): Why can’t you be like a normal child? You need to learn better and have manners!”
Creativity has little space where tasks are practiced as regimentation. “Business unusual” is a catchphrase about doing things differently, to bring about change, to innovate. Times are becoming more complex. For economic gain, nature can no longer be simply considered as something to be “conquered” by people to extract wealth—moving huge chunks of earth, extracting volumes of minerals, damming bodies of water, or chopping down quantities of timber. Developing countries have to factor in social equity and environmental responsibility in the very process of development. This has never been done before.
After the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) end in 2015, the successor Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) agenda is expected to go beyond reducing extreme poverty to eliminating it altogether, while also being equitable and environmentally smart. This complicates imperatives to do growth differently—calling for creativity and innovative ideas.
There is quite a lot of misunderstanding about creativity. Creativity is not haphazard—system and discipline are needed to complete any project. For example musicians do not produce superb music by being haphazard. And creativity is not limited to specific fields like art or music—it is seen in all fields. Medicine, science, cooking, policing, all benefit from creative thinking.
Creativity is also not limited to special people. In fact all people have an element of creativity in them. And creativity is not opposed to intelligence—it is naturally linked to intelligence. Top mathematicians and writers are highly intelligent people. Creativity does not make you do your work badly—it adds resourcefulness. Another myth is that creativity is in-born—you either have it or not. There is not much one can do about it. In fact you can develop and build upon your creativity.
Can established organizations support an innovation ecosystem, in a systematic way, through appropriate strategies and policies? Here are some points on how organizations including my own Asian Development Bank (ADB) can achieve this:
Establish a “safe-to-fail” space as a strategy. This is a precondition to foster an environment for innovation. It needs to be widely understood that there is no penalty for failure—perhaps only for not experimenting at all. Borrowing client countries, however, should not be burdened.
Provide seed funds. A dedicated innovation budget can be set aside, say, as technical assistance for interested departments, or corporately. Such funds can be accessed for testing ideas, exploring options outside traditional approaches, relooking at existing systems for efficiencies, tracking/anticipating new developments, etc. The sectors/themes can be linked to corporate priorities.
Enable managers and trainers to nurture divergent views. Leaders and managers have a choice. Build confidence among staff to experiment, think differently, or just as easily undermine ideas by advising caution or insist on precedents. Managers can value other experiences that newer recruits may bring, including the potential to re-look at old ways. This can be an agenda item in staff meetings.
Train staff to foster exploration of many different angles to issues. In addition to building staff knowledge on relevant subjects, training can foster creativity. It can show staff and managers how creativity can be recognized, channeled, and encouraged regardless of hierarchy. Ideas are not limited by age, level, gender, nationality.
Incentivise innovation. Staff recognition for new initiatives and team/cross-departmental work can be clear signals. It need not be linked to high scores on traditional performance evaluation indicators.
Start an ICT-based knowledge-sharing platform. Well moderated e-discussions can be useful in unleashing ideas where staff can share experiences on a specific issue. An external-facing “Solutions Exchange” platform can include clients, shareholders, experts, practitioners, and staff as well.
Dialogue with relevant organizations fostering innovation. In Asia Pacific UNDP, for example, has rolled out an innovation agenda backed by some funding under its Knowledge-Innovation-Capacity Group with emphasis on rapid prototyping and testing. They have documented some early results. UNDP also makes strategic use of ICT for knowledge brokering, linking up clients, experts, and staff. Multilateral development banks too are discussing innovation as a strategy.
In a globally networked world it will be hard to delink poverty eradication from the idea of the knowledge economy, where economic return at all levels thrives on ideas. As we prepare for the Post-2015 SDGs, ADB President Takehiko Nakao’s quote at a September event takes on new significance: “Innovation has been, and must remain, a crucial element in driving Asia's progress. For [ADB] to stay relevant to the region, it is imperative that we become increasingly innovative ourselves.”