Creating Space for Innovation

In a rapidly changing world, those who can quickly adapt and innovate will come out on top. Yet many organizations are governed by routine. This is often due to a culture that rewards adaptation to the system. This is certainly no way to foster revolutionary new ideas. So how do we create space for innovation?

October 24, 2019

by Maren Borggräfe

We constantly encounter inertia – not just among the public authorities we have to deal with, but among large and small companies in private enterprise as well. Things are done the way they have always been done. Even in the best case, this leads to nothing more than a few improvements here and there. But trailblazing innovations are rarely born.

And by “innovations,” I am not just referring to design departments and product developers. No, in times of accelerating global trends of change such as digitalization, demographic change and increasing levels of sophistication among customers and employees alike, the need for innovation should actually be seen in every cell of the organization. Perhaps this need actually is seen. But there is no innovation.


Why is there no innovation?

With the view of the outside observer (and of course this is a convenient view), I often perceive an organizational culture that neither promotes nor insists upon creative solutions and innovations. On the contrary: In many cases, ideas are even thwarted. There are many reasons for this. Here are my top five:

  1. Systems of incentives reward hard workers who conform.
  2. There is neither space nor time for the mental “slack” that creativity requires.
  3. If anything, errors are tolerated with a raised eyebrow or even sanctioned.
  4. Anyone who shows that things could be done better or faster discredits colleagues who are reluctant to depart from their routine.
  5. Leadership fails to support experimentation and is afraid to put employees out on a limb.

What ingredients does creativity require?

Creativity is not an innate gift that you either have or you do not. Even if you are no genius, you can accomplish creative things. Researcher Teresa Amabile (1996) puts it as follows: “Creativity is more a certain behavior from which a certain idea or a certain product arises.” If creativity is a specific behavior, however, then it can be learned and developed. If ambient conditions are right.

While there is no such thing as a universal recipe for mixing a creativity cocktail, research has now identified a variety of factors that foster creative action in organizations (see e.g. Hunter et al. 2007, Guntern 2009).

  1. The challenge of creative thinking, e.g., through ambitious tasks
  2. intellectual stimulation
  3. positive interaction among colleagues
  4. meaningful, engaging work
  5. stimulation of and space for reflection
  6. generating changes of perspective
  7. safe space for experimentation
  8. error-tolerant environment
  9. processes that permit and productively combine ambiguities (chaos and order, random chance and law, freedom and structural constraints, spontaneity, and calculation)

What is required, then, is, first, work on a creativity-fostering organizational culture with certain requirements of leadership as well as suitable processes and formats. The latter work better, of course, where culture and leadership are geared toward promoting creativity.

Where a fundamental willingness exists to engage in new things, we have had very positive experience with the methods of design thinking and presencing pursuant to Theory U as advanced by Otto Scharmer. Both methods feature a clear process, with rules and basic attitudes, that offers a safe and demanding framework. At the same time, consciously evoked shifts in perspective, e.g. viewing things through the customer’s eyes, through targeted inspiration, explorations of the environment and meanings, free association, summarizing and questioning all go to enable creative solutions possible that are subsequently tested and then either discarded or developed further.

In our view, decisive to the intrinsic motivation to actually become creative in the creative space is the meaning behind it: Why are we doing this? And this is often less about the quantifiable added value that a solution creates, or fulfilling personal desires and interests, but about the feeling of creating something with lasting meaning. After all, that is what creativity is: A creative process.

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Samuel T. Hunter, Katrina E. Bedell, Michael D. Mumford: Climate for Creativity: A Quantitative Review. In: Creativity Research Journal. Band 19, Nr. 1, 1. Mai 2007, ISSN 1040-0419, S. 69–90, doi:10.1080/10400410709336883

Teresa M. Amabile, Regina Conti, Heather Coon, Jeffrey Lazenby, Michael Herron: Assessing the Work Environment for Creativity. In: Academy of Management Journal. Band 39, Nr. 5, Oktober 1996, ISSN 0001-4273, S. 1154–1184, doi:10.5465/256995

Gottlieb Guntern: Kreativität im Ökosystem. In: Differentia. 25. November 2009,