Don’t count on brainstorming creativity

Creativity key to success in a knowledge economy, but few HR departments are ready to unleash it in their workforces, says innovation guru

They’re not words this group’s used to hearing — at least not as bluntly as Fredrik Haren delivered them as he addressed a roomful of human resource executives in Toronto.

“You suck,” he told the room, not once or twice, but three times. “You are totally predictable.”

Predictable because Haren, a Swedish consultant and speaker on innovation and creativity in the business world, had indeed predicted the answers the audience offered in response to his creative thinking exercises.

Take his question for a list of things that are impossible to achieve. Walk to the moon, breath under water, fly, travel through time — the HR executives called them out one by one. Haren wrote them down on an easel pad, and once done, flipped back the pages of another pad to show a list he had compiled before the presentation began.

They were all there. Walk to the moon, breath under water, fly, travel through time.

Haren’s point: we are nowhere near as creative and original as we would like to think. An infinite number of impossible things exist, and yet the HR execs offered up those that are blatantly obvious. “A flying pig. That’s not an original idea — Microsoft even has a screen saver of that one,” Haren said of one person’s suggestion.

“We are not made to be creative. We are programmed to do what we have always done, and to do what other people do.”

Haren’s breakfast session in Toronto was organized late last month by the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario. The session was offered as part of the association’s push to be relevant to human resources practitioners at senior levels by connecting them to ideas making an impact on a global level.

Creative work is hard, but given the rapid spread of information and knowledge, the only knowledge-work commodity that will increase in value in the next 25 years will be ideas, said Haren.

In an interview with Canadian HR Reporter, Haren said organizations that strive to encourage innovation must start by cultivating the right culture for it.

“How do you get a creative organization? By having managers who are brave enough to be creative themselves — not talk about being creative, but by being creative.”

You don’t get creativity by setting up organizational rules and systems that require people to come up with ideas, said Haren. When he asked the room for places where they do their best thinking, common answers were the shower, the bed, the car — in other words, “when you are alone, when you are not thinking, when you are not at work and when you don’t have to,” summed up Haren.

“Now what is a brainstorm? It’s a lot of people who are at work, who have to think, and who have to do right now.”

Asked for an example of HR’s role in brewing ideas in an organization, he pointed to the work of fellow Swede Marie Hallander-Larsson, head of human resources at Wedins Shoes and Accessories. One time, Hallander-Larsson organized a two-day conference for the company’s managers, then on the spur of the moment, decided to remove all the speeches and panel sessions. What remained was a one-day conference that was made up of all the coffee breaks in between the sessions.

People reacted by saying it was a waste of time, that they didn’t know what to talk about. “They started talking about private things, but after one or two hours, they ran out of private things to talk about. So they started to talk about work, and they found out there were all these things they never had time to talk about,” said Haren.

“And they spent the rest of the day talking about all the things they needed to talk about, but no one really knew that they needed to talk about it. And when they left that day, everyone agreed it was the best conference they had been to.”

The lesson for Haren isn’t that the idea worked, but that Hallander-Larsson had the guts to try it out. “She was showing them that it was okay to do something differently.”

Creative organizations are those that empower employees to take initiatives on their own, without having to seek permission from multiple levels of management just to do something different, he said.

On a national scale, Canada has a unique opportunity to brand itself a source of creativity, Haren added. But that will only happen if the country figures out how to capitalize on the diverse skills and experiences that people from all corners of the world bring to Canada when they make it their new home.

Larry Smith, president of Essential Economics Corporation, a Waterloo, Ont.-based consultancy on the economics of innovation, agreed with Haren that courage is what it takes.

He acknowledged that some companies become prisoners of their success by being too successful with a particular model. That’s why so many companies are “one-product wonders,” said Smith, also an adjunct associate professor of economics at the University of Waterloo.

Like Haren, Smith lays much of the blame on an education system that snuffs out children’s imagination and teaches them to conform. The value that today’s organizations put on the “team player,” in Smith’s view, only speaks to organizations’ continued aversion to people who are brave enough to think independently, to take radical steps and embrace new ideas.

“If I were an ‘evil’ HR manager, I would select in my recruitment and evaluation the most cranky, creative people I could get, who look like they can speak plainly,” and who look like they would tell their manager or their CEO when there’s a need that their ideas are simply stupid, said Smith.

“And I would plant these people throughout the organization, sowing the seeds of discord, and in doing so I would have done a favour to both the long-term investors and society at the same time. And would I share this motivation with the CEO? I would not.”

Turning serious, Smith wondered whether Haren’s HR audience was truly provoked, or whether they simply thought, ‘This was interesting,’ and went back to doing things exactly has they had done before.

“Maybe one person in the audience went back and said, ‘Aha. I’m going to transform my organization whether it wishes to be transformed or not.’ If HR people only knew the power they have. If only they knew the leadership and the leverage they could provide.”

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