Innovation and creativity in the workplace is everyone’s job… really?

You would be hard pressed to go to a business forum these days and not hear the town cries of, ‘Innovation is the key to our future!’ ‘Creativity is everyone’s business!’ or one of my favourites, ‘We must support a culture of innovate or die!”

I have two questions. First, is this just lip service or reality? And second, should innovation really even be everyone’s business?

Let’s take a look at the first question. I recently attended a major corporate function, which was followed by national press coverage, where the CEO of one of the country’s largest corporations championed the need to foster innovation in order to remain relevant and competitive.

In his view, developing a culture of innovation was one of the most critical strategic challenges facing business leaders today. I might have found this argument compelling, had I not known some intimate details of the same company, where only a few months earlier, it squashed a creative spin-off concept proposed by a few employees into oblivion. Not only was there no attempt to analyse this innovation and see where or how it might fit into the organisation, it was seen as outside the technical job description of these staff members and so was treated as an HR and legal issue.

These departments swiftly and intimidatingly, demanded them to cease and desist or face possible termination and or legal proceedings. Wow! Talk about hampering an innovative workplace. The reality is that large corporations are rarely set up for fostering innovation, and even if they do bubble to the surface, are very poor at allocating the resources behind that innovation.

The second question, is whether companies even should foster an environment where innovation is everyone’s business. This may come as a surprise, particularly coming from an entrepreneur, but the answer I believe is no.

Consider an airline or a bank with thousands of employees. Does the management of an airline want an employee when checking in bags to say, let me try a new tagging approach to route these bags. Do we want hundreds of bank tellers to all be thinking about creative ways to deal with customer deposits?

Maybe in Fantasyland. But for major corporations, far more important than creativity is its exact opposite: clear, documented processes that are reliable and consistent. An airline customer wants, more than anything else, for their flight to arrive on time (no easy feat I can tell you from a constant traveller), and their bags to arrive at the correct destination (equally, not so easy).

A banking customer wants their account to be perfectly balanced and reliable, every time. That doesn’t mean innovations and value added products aren’t desirable, of course they are, but they aren’t the most important consideration for the thousands of staff that are expected to ensure smooth and efficient operations.

Therefore a lot of the discussion around innovation being everyone’s business, is more about saying what is popular than saying what is true. In reality, innovation, creativity and strategy, should be driven fundamentally by the CEO, his executive team and possibly by senior management, but certainly not across the board for all staff.

Take for example ‘creative accounting’ by a corporate CFO, clearly that is an instance where creativity is not warranted.

I can almost hear some people trying to yell out as they are reading: ‘But a bank teller might have a great idea for a product innovation!’ Absolutely, but it’s still the domain of the executive team to create the structure for this to be brought to their attention and to then act on it, otherwise it’s just an idea gathering dust.

One perfect example is to have an award process where all staff are able to pitch an innovation concept, what the expected budget will be and the value to the organisation. This would need to backed up by a senior committee to vet all of the submissions and then for the best innovation to be funded and resourced.

If there isn’t a system in place to fund and resource such creative ideas, all that will be left is frustration by staff about the disconnect between the press sound bite, and the internal realities.


Mat Jacobson
BY Mat Jacobson ON 6 June 2014
Mat Jacobson is the founder of Ducere, a global education company delivering the world’s most innovative business courses online. He is also the founder of the Ducere Foundation, working with African governments to improve the quality of education in third world countries.