Innovation or Improvement?


In this Business Week column, the title is The Myth of Creativity. This takes a bold stance AGAINST creativity. Here is the central premise:

The sobering truth is that the dramatic artistic creations or intellectual insights we most admire for their striking “creativity” matter little for economic growth. Creative new clothes or music may change fashion, but are soon eclipsed by newer fashions. Large and lasting economic innovations, like steam engines or cell phones, are rare and tend to be independently “invented” by many people. One less visionary would matter little.

Instead, the innovations that matter most are the millions of small changes we constantly make to our billions of daily procedures and arrangements. Such changes do not require free-spirited self-expression. Instead, people quite naturally think of changes as they go about their routine business and social lives.

In fact, humans generate far more suggestions than we could ever possibly pursue. We throw away most ideas, while those we do bother to mention are rarely pursued. Almost everyone has suggestions they think were unfairly ignored. This is not because of evil conformism; given our limited resources, it simply could not be otherwise.

The author, George Mason University professor Robin Hanson, believes our need for “creative control” in fact stifles a great deal of the untapped creativity floating around us. I have to give Hanson credit first for saying it, because no one wants to be perceived as standing up against creativity and innovation. Innovation is one of the most popular business topics today, whether you pick up a magazine or search for a book (innovation).. There is instead a need to focus on execution. Here's is what Hanson says:

What society needs is not more creativity or suggestions for change but better ways to encourage people to focus on important issues, identify the most promising ideas, and tell the right people about them. But our deification of creativity gets in the way.

Consider what happens in a kaizen. What produces more progress, brand new ideas that came from nowhere, or ideas that people have already had that just needed the push to make it happen? I believe lean is about focusing people on the actions required, and testing those action rigorously for their effectiveness. Creativity is important, sure. But action is more important. How many ideas did you have today? How many did you capitalize on? Creativity isn't king, results are, and you don't get results just by coming up with ideas.

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  1. Ralf says

    Jamie, you are right just having good ideas is not enough and they have to be transformed into good results.

    Sometimes ideas are just not ripe for the circumstances, time or the views of other people and that hinders good ideas to put into gear. You have to wait for the right time or somebody at the right position who sees that positive effects of that idea and is willing to push (what an un-LEAN word;-() that forward.

    Even at Kaizen events -as I have attended one a few weeks ago- some ideas are really difficult to transform. There must be always somebody who is the driver for implementing these ideas into real results (against all odds). So you really need people who are looking ahead are seeing the potential of the ideas giving active help.

    Even though some things look really simple at first glance there are obstacles that appear just as you are about to go productive with your idea.

    Anyway, without ideas that are far beyond the present state there will be no results now (just go forward step by step and you will reach the final state:-)).

    Regards from Leipzig,


  2. Jamie Flinchbaugh says

    Thanks for your comments Ralf, and best of luck to Germany tomorrow in the Cup semi-finals.

  3. curiouscat says

    I agree the current innovation fad is way overdone. We seem to like extreme positions. But often what is needed is a complicated mix of innovation, execution, planning, customer focus, respect for people, experimenting, risk taking, process improvement…

    I posted about the need to be better (results) and different (innovation). I came to the conclusion you express: better is more important – if you must choose.

  4. Jamie Flinchbaugh says

    Thanks for the link to your post and blog, curiouscat. It’s also a reminder that the true value of Dr. Deming isn’t just in the 14 points but in reading and studying deeper. We have enough written from him that we can probably live the “WWDD” way, or What Would Deming Do?

  5. Robin Hanson says

    Thanks for the praise Jamie. I’m not the first or the best to have said things like I said – just the most prominent person this month.

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