Three Things Every Leader Should Understand About Creativity and Innovation

Much of one’s existence consists of a continuous effort to adapt. This is a basic survival principle. We learn, we discover, we change all in an effort to adjust to our environments and our changing desires. Organizations do the same – some better than others.

As varied as the daily churn of many groups may appear – the overall goal of any institution can be found in its charter – its mandate. An organization exists to accomplish its given purpose. However, as the world evolves they too must constantly revise their perspective and processes. They must reexamine if their purpose remains valid. They must ensure their basic assumptions hold true and then continue to refine their processes in a continuous effort to improve. Countless examples exist from history of corporations and organizations that have failed to change with their times – Sears, Blockbuster, Borders, Eastman-Kodak – all stand in infamy as examples of corporations that failed to adapt.

As organizations seek to remain relevant and competitive in their given domain they often challenge their workers to innovate. They want their team to remain agile, adaptive, and inspired. They want to ensure their organization’s purpose remains relevant. They also seek to discover new efficiencies, better means, and more effective ways of operating. The Department of Defense (DoD) is no different.

The overall purpose for the DoD is to maintain the security of the nation and to win its wars. This goal remains constant but the world continues to change. Today, the problems the DoD must solve may be some of the most complex and adaptive imaginable. Shifting political objectives, adept adversaries, and emerging technologies engender a continuous disruptive cycle to which the DoD must respond. As the DoD seeks to inspire innovation within its ranks and to develop initiatives that inspire creativity and change – what lessons might military leaders apply within their organizations? In a previous post we offered some advice to bring about innovation that focused on buy-in, timing, and incentives. This essay explores aspects of creativity of which all leaders should be made aware.

Three Things Every Military Leader Should Understand About Creativity and Innovation

  • Creative teammates are difficult to lead and manage. While the notion of creativity may be an admired trait – when people find themselves interacting with, and trying to supervise creative people, they often become frustrated. This disconnect is challenging for both sides. Leaders feel they cannot maintain unity of effort – the creative feel constricted and repressed. In a series of studies, teachers self-reported that they favored inventive, original children when asked whether they preferred working with creative students. However, when given an objective test, in which students demonstrated their creativity, teachers favored those students who conformed and did not question their authority.[i],[ii] I suspect strongly that most leaders have a similar bias. They want to have problem-solvers on their team, but when they are confronted with personalities that do not easily conform they bristle. How can we change this?

Recommendation: As leaders in the military, we must seek out, foster, and employ the strengths of our personnel. Uniformity has its place and purpose – but if we want to nurture creative, innovative environments we cannot sideline creative individuals or label them as troublemakers. Answering the questions of dissenters who ask why we are approaching a problem in a given manner may not work in a fire-fight. That does not mean those that offer dissent elsewhere should be silenced. Instead, if the DoD wants to generate innovation from within it must begin to recognize and truly value those  most creative within our ranks.

  • Group-think is dangerous and brainstorming does not work. In his recent book, How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, author Kevin Ashton notes that investing valuable time in brainstorm is a complete waste. In a classic brainstorming scenario a leader gathers his or her team around the old conference table and throws out a given topic for them to collectively bat-around until they have that “Eureka!” moment. Brainstorming has been the go to reflex for leaders looking to generate ideas and buy-in. Sadly, it just does not work well and can often lead to group-think. When tested, individuals working independently generated 30-40% more ideas than when they worked together. Their results were also of higher quality. Furthermore, related research has shown that the larger the group size, the less the productivity. As groups get larger they tend to fixate on single solutions and miss alternate solutions. In other words, more heads at the table may actually lead to worse results. Two heads may actually be a worse than one and four may be awful. How can we change this?

Recommendation: It might be time to recommend that rather than devote hours to group-think that given problems get assigned broadly to a core group of problem solvers who can work independently. Let’s not espouse a culture of collective suffering in which staffs devote countless hours to team-building around a single table and one Powerpoint brief. Instead, providing teammates with some time to go off on their own and think about a problem may yield more ideas of higher quality. Give your team time to think on their own and you might be impressed by their individual results.

  • Creativity requires endurance and perspiration more than inspiration. Here is a little known myth about creativity as recounted by Kevin Ashton:

1815, Germany’s General Music Journal published a letter in which Mozart described his creative process:

 When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer; say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. All this fires my soul, and provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once. When I proceed to write down my ideas the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is, as I said before, already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination.

 In other words, Mozart’s greatest symphonies, concertos, and operas came to him complete when he was alone and in a good mood. He needed no tools to compose them. Once he had finished imagining his masterpieces, all he had to do was write them down.

But there is a problem. Mozart did not write this letter. It is a forgery. This was first shown in 1856 by Mozart’s biographer Otto Jahn and has been confirmed by other scholars since.

Mozart’s real letters — to his father, to his sister, and to others — reveal his true creative process. He was exceptionally talented, but he did not write by magic. He sketched his compositions, revised them, and sometimes got stuck. He could not work without a piano or harpsichord. He would set work aside and return to it later. He considered theory and craft while writing, and he thought a lot about rhythm, melody, and harmony. Even though his talent and a lifetime of practice made him fast and fluent, his work was exactly that: work. Masterpieces did not come to him complete in uninterrupted streams of imagination, nor without an instrument, nor did he write them down whole and unchanged. The letter is not only forged, it is false

What can we learn from this? Creativity, Innovation, Genius – do not arrive in “Eureka!” moments. These superlatives are earned after countless hours of expertise are honed and cultivated. Creativity is something fostered and developed and not something innate and exclusive. Anyone can innovate if inspired and given the time to work. Genius is not born but grown. So-called geniuses stand on the shoulders of other so-called geniuses who have stood on the shoulders of countless other so-called geniuses. In reality, many great innovators worked diligently at incremental improvements until their final result looked so unfamiliar to their beginnings that many mistook their arrival as sudden. Those who desire to create and innovate have to work at it. As leaders, if we want to have creative, innovative teammates we have to invest in them. Innovation takes dedicated time, energy, and resources. Therefore, if we truly want innovation within the DoD we must provide these essential elements. How do we do this?

Recommendation: Organizations that desire innovation must develop a high level of interaction, positive debate, and valued discussion throughout daily activities.[iii] Key word there is “daily.” Innovators must have a safe environment in which to cooperate and share their ideas. Leaders in these organizations must take an affirming view and encourage an ecosystem of continuous improvement. If the DoD wants to truly innovate from within it must transform its organizational culture from within. The assumptions, ideas, and beliefs of the DoD may have to shift. A culture of rigidity and caution will not bring about the dramatic changes required. Those that favor the bold and intellectually curious will earn a far greater return. Leaders must till until their environments are fertile for creative growth.

The Takeaways

In conclusion, all organizations must find the means to adapt and evolve or risk irrelevance or defeat in their given domain. The DoD has recently made a number of public appeals for innovation, and announced new strategies for change. These calls for adaptation are both inspiring and positive. However, until a broader reform takes place within the ranks of the DoD, whereby leaders begin to recognize not only the value of creative personalities, but also provide them with an affirming environment and the requisite resources, lasting change will not occur. The call for innovation begins with every leader within the military.

As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.


[i] Bachtold, L. (1974). The creative personality and the ideal pupil revisited. Journal of Creative Behavior, 8, 47-64.

[ii] Westby, E. & Dawson V.L. (1995). Creativity: Asset or Burden in the Classroom? Creativity Research Journal, 8, 1-10.

[iii] Michael West and Claudia Sacramento (2012). Creativity and Innovation: The Role of Team and Organizational Climate. Handbook of Organizational Creativity, Academic Press, London, UK.

One thought on “Three Things Every Leader Should Understand About Creativity and Innovation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s