Creativity Is Not Enough
Are great ideas destroying your company?
by Theodore Levitt
Ted Levitt, a former editor of HBR and one of the most incisive commentators on innovation to have appeared in our pages, takes dead aim at the assumption that creativity is superior to conformity. He argues that creativity as it’s commonly defined—the ability to come up withbrilliantly novel ideas—can actually be destructive to businesses. By failing to take into account practical matters of implementation, big thinkers can inspire organizational cultures dedicated to abstract chatter rather than purposeful action. In such cultures, innovation never happens—because people are always talking about it but never doing it.
Often, the worst thing a company can do, in Levitt’sview, is put innovation into the hands of “creative types”—those compulsive idea generators whose distaste for the mundane realities of organizational life renders them incapable of executing any real project. Organizations, by their very nature, are designed to promote order and routine; they are inhospitable environments for innovation. Those who don’t understand organizational realities aredoomed to see their ideas go unrealized. Only the organizational insider—the apparent conformist—has the practical intelligence to overcome bureaucratic impediments and bring a good idea to a fruitful conclusion.
“Creativity” is not the miraculous road to business growth and affluence that is so abundantly claimed these days. And for the line manager, particularly, it may be more of a millstonethan a milestone. Those who extol the liberating virtues of corporate creativity over the somnambulistic vices of corporate conformity may actually be giving advice that in the end will reduce the creative animation of business. This is because they tend to confuse the getting of ideas with their implementation—that is, confuse creativity in the abstract with practical innovation; not understand theoperating executive’s day-to-day problems; and underestimate the intricate complexity of business organizations.
The trouble with much of the advice business is getting today about the need to be more vigorously creative is, essentially, that its advocates have generally failed to distinguish between the relatively easy process of being creative in the abstract and the infinitely more difficultprocess of being innovationist in the concrete. Indeed, they misdefine “creativity” itself. Too often, for them, “creativity” means having great, original ideas. Their emphasis is almost all on the thoughts themselves. Moreover, the ideas are often judged more by their novelty than by their potential usefulness, either to consumers or to the company. In this article, I shall show that in mostcases, having a new idea can be “creative” in the abstract but destructive in actual operation, and that often instead of helping a company, it will even hinder it.
Suppose you know two artists. One tells you an idea for a great painting, but he does not paint it. The other has the same idea and paints it. You could easily say the second man is a great creative artist. But could you say the same thingof the first man? Obviously not. He is a talker, not a painter.
That is precisely the problem with so much of today’s pithy praise of creativity in business—with the unending flow of speeches, books, articles, and “creativity workshops” whose purpose is to produce more imaginative and creative managers and companies. My observations of these activities over a number of years lead me firmly tothis conclusion. They mistake an idea for a great painting with the great painting itself. They mistake brilliant talk for constructive action.
But, as anybody who knows anything about any organization knows only too well, it is hard enough to get things done at all, let alone to introduce a new way of doing things, no matter how good it may seem. A powerful new idea can kick around unused in a...