Innovation Won’t Thrive where Creativity isn’t Valued

In Sparking Innovation (Harvard Business Press), Stanford University professor Robert Sutton describes how the ‘hippie’ founders of Lotus woke up one day to realize that a multi-billion dollar company built on creativity was stifling the very innovation that made it successful.

This ‘face the mirror’ moment came when they decided to put the resumes of the company’s creators (under assumed names) through its human resource screening system and discovered that they couldn’t even get a call-back for open positions. As the company grew, it brought in ‘suits and ties’ that could operate the business and sell the products but not create innovations to sustain competitiveness.

Health system CEOs lament the lack of innovation in their organizations and are perplexed as to how quickly innovation initiatives fizzle out. All too often, health system structures, operating systems, policies, culture and hiring practices form the antithesis of innovation. Our business practices, reward systems, hiring and promotions policies support left brain thinking and behaviors. We crave the orderliness of it, find safety in its logical processing, relax in its familiarity.

By contrast, while we love the output of a creative, right-brainer – be it a work of art, a brilliant book, or a breakthrough product innovation – we are mystified, even fearful of the creative process. It’s messy, non-linear, riddled with risk. So, we tend to hire to our safety zone – and end up with a company of smart people that can build organizations, systems, flowcharts and spreadsheets to manage the business, but can’t create the value innovations that drive growth, profitability and future success.

Sometimes “the difference between innovative work and routine work are the types of people who do the work.”

As with most things, the key is to strike a balance. If health systems are to spark the innovations needed to thrive in an industry undergoing massive transformation, they’ll need to address not only ‘how’ to acculturate the creative process but also ‘who’ is sitting around the table.

Karen Corrigan

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