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Innovation & Creative Thinking

August 14, 2009

Today more than ever, businesses hunger for innovation and creative thinking. Functional leaders often bemoan the absence of such skills within their teams and claim at least that they would like to inject these capabilities into the organization.

My experience leads me to question how sincere many managers are when they say they want more innovators. Creative thinking involves challenging the status-quo and in fact many managers are not comfortable with such challenges. One pre-requisite of innovation and creativity is an environment that welcomes such thinking and encourages its discussion.

I don’t know whether the lack of innovation and creative thinking is because most people have limited capability for it, or whether they lack the environment to encourage it. But whichever is the case, I was interested to discover an article by Evan Woodhead entitled “The Root of Active Learning: Boosting Creative Thinking and Innovative Capacity“. In it, he highlights the four big enemies of innovation and creativity and I repeat them here:

  • Assumptions. Often you’re unaware that you are making assumptions. When you’re involved in a complex situation, you tend to see yourself as the center of the universe. This leads to assumptions, such as how processes will work, what events will trigger what activities, and who will do what tasks. Assumptions prevent you from seeing better solutions.
  • Strengths. These anchor you since you rely on them. Yet they too may get in the way of your creative thinking. If you default to methods you are comfortable with and fail to consider alternatives, you may restrict yourself to second-rate solutions. The cost and inconvenience of building new strengths may be justified.
  • Fears. These anchor your creative thinking in powerful and devious ways. You gravitate to solutions that allow you to ignore your fears. If possible, you don’t acknowledge an option that triggers your fears. Confronted with the possibility, fear asserts itself and convinces you that there are many valid reasons for rejecting the frightening option—and none of them have anything to do with your fear. This anchor is often the easiest to unlock once you identify it. Often, you know what you would do if you were not afraid. Free of fear, you can evaluate the idea on its merits and reach a reasonable decision.
  • Habits. These are difficult to detect over time. While newcomers may see habits readily, they may lack the power and influence to challenge them. Habits are often detectible by their defense mechanisms. If the reason for a given process is because you’ve always done it that way, you have a habit. Recognizing and challenging the habit is healthy.
  • As I look at the contracts, procurement and commercial community, I see these characteristics far too frequently. The reluctance to challenge assumptions and to change habits is endemic. For example, the majority do not want to hear the results of research that suggests they are doing the wrong things. They continue to apply the old, familiar solutions and achieve the old, familiar results. It is a community that exhibits blind confidence in its strengths (for example in managing risks or delivering savings) and uses these to dismiss and ignore its fears (for example that someone will challenge these strengths and prove them to be largely illusory).

    So much around us has changed. Global markets and networked teechnologies have thrust the quality and contribution of trading relationships to the forefront of any successful business. It is an area screaming out for innovation and creative thinking. Examples abound. For instance, just yesterday I interviewed Peter Brudenall, a partner at law firm Hunton & Williams, on the subject of agile development and the need for new contract models. IACCM is working with a wide array of companies on the question of ‘contracting excellence’ – what is it, how do you measure it? The Obama administration has initiated work on contract reform in the public sector. A growing number of companies worldwide are focusing on areas such as post-award contract and relationship management.

    The list of desired or potential innovations goes on and on. Yet in truth, we find that only a small minority are actually interested in discovering answers that do not fit their existing assumptions, strengths, fears and habits. Creative thinking is frequently suppressed because of the challenge that it might represent.

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