Why creativity is dangerous for business innovation


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I don’t have much time for the BS of what I call the “innovation industry“, although I do certainly admire their ability to create wealth for themselves by selling this BS. But I resent the fact that I have to ultimately pay for it in services I buy e.g. I have to pay for the “Innovation Department” at the ANZ bank in my bank fees. When the banks award themselves prizes for their “innovation” it’s always astounding how the “innovation” is the least of what you would expect as being an everyday part of the service.

The big banks have proven to be perfect candidates for the innovation industry, sold up the line on the need for “creativity” and brainstorming and plastering yellow sticky notes around rooms, and having performance artists jig around the room at management training. Personally I find most street performers plain dull, perhaps even stupid – I’m not their mother!

That’s why creativity is dangerous for the vast majority of businesses. It diverts attention and resources from real business innovation. Let’s put aside the 1 or 2% of companies that need to be and are genuinely creative, or inventive. They are a special case, not the 98% norm.

In which case the 98% norm would do a lot better, in my opinion, to follow Apple, an astoundingly uncreative company. After all the iPhone was the lowest common denominator of it’s non-Apple ancestors. DoCoMo in Japan invented the “app-store” more than a decade ago, and it’s still larger than the Apple app store is today. KDDI in Japan invented mobile music downloads, and their management and commercial deals with the record companies a decade ago. Sharp had the non-keyboard touch screen, and far superior camera and optics, many years before the iPhone version 1 etc etc.

BUT, Apple is the most successful. Because of their plain boring uncreative business innovation in combining, refining, and negotiating a great new ecosystem and value proposition for consumers. Street clowns and Innovation Departments not necessary!

Don’t take it from me, Steven Jobs says “Good artists copy, great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

When you get that happening as something everyone in the organization is responsible for all the time, and to the point that it happens in a casual and “unprofessional” manner because it is ingrained into every meeting and every conversation with customers and every observation of the market, then you are very likely to create real wealth. And innovation without wealth creation is not innovation.

But a mind-set change is never easy, and it is made harder by the innovation industry preaching creativity instead of the synthesis and analysis of customer and internal insights as an everyday practice.

That’s why some people use different words, such as “imitation“, to try to drive thinking away from the street performers. For example Oded Shenkar recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review (April 2010) that “Imitation Is More Valuable Than Innovation” and that “imitation is underappreciated”. It’s a good effort, but in my mind a pity that we can’t use “innovation” in a business context to mean “business innovation” because it has been corrupted by “creativity”.

Business innovation isn’t “something from nothing” where that nothing has no context, which is how creativity seems to be often described. It may well be from a fantastic insight or synthesis of “white space” between existing services, products, thoughts or feedback, which in a sense is something from nothing but within a context.

And counter-intuitively business innovation includes letting go of the things you once innovated yourself into and love to do. Letting go is often one of the hardest acts of business innovation, which Drucker pointed out a long time ago – his concept of “planned abandonment”.

A key question that Drucker often liked to ask management was: “If we did not do this already, would we go into it now?”

There’s nothing creative about that, but there is something authentic. Drucker also said, “Innovation opportunities do not come with the tempest but with the rustling of the breeze.”

I say chasing creativity is destroying wealth for most businesses, that’s why it is dangerous.

On the other hand, driving a culture of relentless curiosity about your own business, your customers’ businesses, your competitor’s businesses and markets, and knowing how to synthesis that and deliver it through your own organisation, is what I call business innovation. That’s worth it’s weight in gold, and it is sustainable.

Are you a “creativist” or a “synthesist” when it comes to business innovation?

Do you think Apple just steals ideas, or what extra “secret sauce” do they add?


Republished with author's permission from original post.

Walter Adamson
I help firms create optimal customer experiences by integrating social data, teams & processes with enterprise systems. The much vaunted 360-view of the customer can be a bottomless pit without a clear data strategy. I help you deliver a greatly improved customer experience starting with a "45-degree" view of the customer, fully utilising social data analytics. I clarify your objectives and what data you need to service them, and guide you to operationalise "social at scale" to consistently deliver valuable customer experience at every social touch point.


  1. Love this post. Agree that many businesses confuse adding fundamental business services and programs as innovations when they are simply being creative about introducing what should have been there in the first place. Innovation is not taking someone else’s ideas and making them better. Additionally, our business focuses on helping business discover real innovation by “driving a culture of relentless curiosity about your own business, your customers’ businesses, your competitor’s businesses and markets, and knowing how to synthesis that and deliver it through your own organisation.”
    I couldn’t have said it better and included in our latest blog post: http://www.sustainablerevenues.com/2010/06/24/the-opportunties-in-real-innovation/

  2. Real innovation creates wealth, yes. That would be discontinuous innovation, and even the innovation industry is at a loss when it comes to selling that. A few people in the innovation industry do know how to do it, but management won’t adopt their recommendations.

    Continuous or sustaining innovations accumulate cash, but somehow we have confused cash and wealth. Maybe it’s all of those wealth management services.

    To create wealth, you have to create new categories, which in turn require creating new value chains, and more importantly for our recovery from the recession, new jobs that won’t quickly end up offshore.

    Stop worrying about innovation vendors. Just innovate, take the wealth, and do what you do best, innovate again. Until management learns how to take the innovation vendor’s advice, you have nothing to worry about. You won’t have competent competitors. Enjoy it while it lasts.

  3. Dave, thanks for your comments, I’m usually ducking swinging sticks when I make a post like this so I appreciate your enthusiasm.

    David, discontinuous innovation is the holy grail – I take it that you don’t think much of business innovation as continuous improvement, as it generates “cash” not “wealth” in your terms. Is that correct?

    Is it really true, as most businesses just produce toasters and add some additional value of some type to make a “whole product” which could be emotional, brand, relationships, perception, or even performance? I mean after all even GE which “had to be #1 or #2” in every industry wasn’t – it sold lots of toasters and created lots of wealth. Are we on different tracks here or the same?

    Walter Adamson @g2m
    Certified Social Media Consultant
    Melbourne, Australia
    My social spaces and places: http://xeesm.com/walter

  4. You’re not really dissing on true creativity, but rather the ossification of “creativity” in departments or service providers who trot out the latest fundamentally uncreative trendy schlock and throw “seminars” and other such mostly wastes of time and resources. Once you impose company politics and structure on anything it becomes less about the thing and more about empire building and personalities, and since creativity is slippery and hard to quantify, it’s very easy to squeeze all creativity out of any department with one misguided management stroke.

    Creativity should be woven into the very fabric of the business, as you say.

    However, I disagree that Apple is uncreative. While coming up with very few truly innovative technologies themselves, they were creative enough to know which ones had potential, and apt enough to provide spit ‘n’ polish and get a lot of disparate technologies integrated into a product that’s truly intuitive for humans to use. Those raw ideas were out there for anyone to steal, but other companies dismissed them and tried instead to put a new “creative” coat of paint on their tired old crap. How come Apple consistently picks winners?

  5. I agree with Graham that creativity is not the culprit. But creativity and new ideas are not enough.

    For an upcoming article on innovation I interviewed a number of experts and the consensus was that real innovation means introducing a change that produces value.

    Creativity, ideas, inventions… essential raw material. But only if these can be turned in a change that produces value should these be called innovations.

    Innovations could mean new products/services, but also changes in internal processes (to improve quality, reduce cost), improvements in the customer experience (employee training, use of Twitter, whatever), even use of IT systems (think Wal-Mart and how it manages its supply chain).

    Innovation is a fuzzy concept that is prone to hype and quick-buck artists, just like CRM, social media, or any popular buzzword. But I’d argue that innovation is the single most important process to manage. The trick is channeling the creativity and idea generation into the *right* innovations — those that will increase the value proposition for customers while delivering a return to stakeholders.

  6. Hi Walter

    I am not sure that I would agree with your blanket disparaging of creativity in business. Sure, it has been hijacked by many a business (aided and abetted by creativity consultants!), but so have many other useful tools. It doesn’t make them any less useful when intelligently applied. Research shows that many new ideas originate at the edge of business where business operations inside the company meet the real world of partners, suppliers and customers outside the company. This is the creative edge for most businesses and is not to be underestimated as a source of winning innovation.

    Where I do agree with you is in your response to David’s comment where you suggest that continuous innovation can create significant wealth, not just cash. Just look at companies like Toyota, which as made over 20 million improvements to its business operations in the past 40 years. Toyota is regularly voted one of the most innovative companies in the world, largely due to its Kaizen-powered continuous innovation. It is not for nothing that Toyota’s market capitalisation is easily the highest of all car companies.

    Innovation is about finding new ways to meet customers’ needs whilst also meeting the company’s needs. In some cases that comes from discontinuous innovation, but these are few and far between. In far more cases it comes from the patient application of continuous innovation.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  7. Graham, I’m not a fan of “creativity” per se, because I believe that for most businesses it distracts from where the real wealth creation opportunities lie, so we’ll have to agree to disagree on that. I certainly agree with the whole remainder of your comment. The “edge of business” seems totally unremarkable as a finding since no business found sustainable success by observing their own navel for a long time. I think my last para sums that up. The area for improvement is more around the fine-tuning of that “edge” in terms of scope and depth and the cost-benefits of its extensions into “the customer’s customer” and “the supplier’s suppliers” etc.

    tixrus I agree with your assessment of my main thrust, which may seem contradictory to my answer to Graham. However in my mind “creativity” has generated its own industry as a subset of the innovation industry and it’s own mindset which I think is unhelpful for most businesses. I would prefer to think if it as innovation and that of course has a spectrum of insights.

    With respect to Apple, I understand your point and it is a challenging one. Yours is the common view, that Apple is a very creative company. But is this just because of superior insight, “stealing ideas”, synthesis, analysis, business nous, design skills, manufacturing, logistics, marketing etc, and how significant is “creativity” in all that. I would label it all as superior business innovation. Alternatively, I could say that Apple is one of those 2% of companies on the planet where real creativity is fundamental to their success, but when I think of it that way the bells just don’t ring for me.

    By the way, your example of them creating a “product” which is “intuitive for humans to use”, and I guess you mean the iPhone, certainly does not align with my thinking. To the contrary in fact. There was nothing significant that was in the iPhone per se that hadn’t been done in total and delivered as a handset before. The innovation was in the whole ecosystem which was a smooth refinement of what others had done before, including Apple, plus the commercial model in breaking the back of the telcos. The product per se was certainly a hype success, but not innovative (although it did appear that way to US consumers).

    Bob, as I said “innovation without wealth creation is not innovation” so I am in violent agreement with your experts. You said the issue is “channeling the creativity and idea generation into the *right* innovations”. I would put it another way. It’s certainly crucial to link innovations with the “edge of business”, as Graham says, and with internal improvements and transformations. I see both the innovations and the “channel” to link them to wealth creation being the people who are practicing what I am calling “business innovation” as a part of what they do day-to-day. They are the “channel”, not the Innovation Department for example, because for one thing they know how to get things done in the organisation and they own the results.

    Walter Adamson @g2m
    Certified Social Media Consultant
    Melbourne, Australia
    My social spaces and places: http://xeesm.com/walter

  8. By chance I just stumbled upon a debate about innovation and the US telco industry, which mentioned the “app store” and its origin. Just in case of any doubters of my claim that this was invented more than a decade ago by DoCoMo here is an extract. I’ve included the surrounding material since it is relevant to our “innovation” debate here:

    “… says the US industry is innovative because there were 100,000 apps at the end of 2009 and today 240,000 apps. Is this so? The US wireless carriers are somehow ‘innovative’ because Apple has bypassed them – and offered consumer side-loaded apps so they can enjoy services that the carriers would not bother to give them directly (or more to the point, made it prohibitively expensive to do). Lets see how “innovative” that is.

    In Japan, on just one carrier, NTT DoCoMo, there are today over a million content partners, application and service providers. When did they pass that 100,000 level? in 2004! You think Steve Largent that this is a sign of innovation in America in 2009? You are literally 5 years behind Japan – a country only a third the size of the USA in population. Shame on you! But I know the app store argument is fun to make today, eh? So you admit that the carriers can’t do this level of creativity, it takes the outsider – like Apple – to do it. Thats exactly what I argued. So, one, I defeat your argument that the USA is ‘innovative’ because of the Apple App Store – but you then admit that the 100,000 in December 2009 and most of the 240,000 today (Apple having 225,000) is because of Apple who could not deploy these on the carrier systems, and had to develop its own app store. You are helping me prove my point that the carriers in the USA are dinosaurs”.

    The link: http://communities-dominate.blogs.com/brands/2010/06/serious-reply-to-ctia-steve-largent-hes-cruisin-for-a-bruisin.html

    Walter Adamson @g2m
    Certified Social Media Consultant
    Melbourne, Australia
    My social spaces and places: http://xeesm.com/walter

  9. Walter, you seem to be using “innovation” to mean the original invention.

    I’m aware of DoCoMo but it means nothing to me as a consumer in the US market. So Apple seems new and innovative to me, personally.

    Agreed, the term innovation is thrown around too loosely, but you’re suggesting it be tightened to mean only original inventor. I think companies can be innovative without necessarily being first in doing something.

    The key question: is the change being introduced to the company (product, service, systems, …) producing value (now or future) for the enterprise?

    I’m more concerned about companies claiming as “innovation” ideas and invention that never amount to anything in the market. I can think of one software company in particular that keep talking about innovative technology, but can’t seem to get such technology to market in products that make money.

  10. Bob, perhaps we’re getting off track. I don’t mean invention in the slightest, that’s a different topic.

    1. Because a consumer in a particular country hasn’t heard of a huge commercial success of a service in another country does not make a new company which introduces it into that new market “creative”, which is the subject here, versus business innovation.

    I’ll explain that a bit more in case it was a tangled sentence! DoCoMo has not only invented apps stores, which is NOT my point, but they commercialized it and made $$$BILLIONS which is true business innovation. I made the point that Apple was not “creative” in reassembling this apps store idea, commercialized by DoCoMo a decade before. I am saying that Apple is highly business innovative in “stealing” this prior commercial success of DoCoMo’s along with a number of other commercially successful services and products which may or may not have been seen in the US and creating and whole new ecosystem which is a fabulous business success. I just don’t see that requiring street performers in the team meetings!

    3. So to come back to my focus, great business innovation can be done and is proven by Apple by bringing together a whole range of existing services and products and filling in some white spaces and some clever commercial negotiation. I think other businesses can follow this example without being sidetracked down the path of fretting about how “creative” their people are. After all many Chinese companies also do this exceptionally well and I’m sure they don’t sweat over how “creative” they are.

    Walter Adamson @g2m
    Certified Social Media Consultant
    Melbourne, Australia
    My social spaces and places: http://xeesm.com/walter

  11. Walter,

    I love the chutzpah, but will have to lament some of your conclusions, and I particularly must take issue with the title of your interesting post.

    When you say creativity is bad for “business” I think I understand what you are trying to say — that wild and original ideas are not all that necessary for creating value and making money. I’m sympathetic to the idea of ideas with no value — we can agree that’s a waste of time. However the definition of creativity is simply: Novelty that is useful. Apple created just enough useful novelty with the iPhone to put it over the top. The ecosystem that you refer to is one hell of a creative idea — even if it’s only a refinement of pre-existing technologies, and, also a bona fide business innovation. So, I would argue that Apple is very creative.

    It depends on how you define creative. I would argue that without creative ideas, the wealth creation you desire (and we all desire) wouldn’t happen. “Business Innovation” arises from an environment of creative thinkers. Creativity is the spring, innovation is bottled water. Creativity isn’t just wild and crazy ideas, it’s all ideas, both small and large, conceptual and tactical.

    Michael Kirton, Phd provides a useful perspective with regard to creative thinking. His “AI Theory” (Adaptor Innovator) puts people on a spectrum. Those who think adaptively, that is, small improvements and refinements, are creative adaptors. Those who think “different” that is new paradigms, are creative innovators. All are creative.

    Business needs a blend of both adaptive creative thinking, and innovative creative thinking (as defined by Kirton) to get to value creation and da shekels.

    As a creativity and innovation consultant who has worked with clients to create market winners, I can assure you that creativity is a necessary ingredient in business success. I fear that with titles like yours we are muddying the waters and in fact throwing the baby out with the proverbial bath water.

  12. Gregg, I can’t argue with your thoughtful case, just to say that if the emphasis is creativity versus business innovation then I think the title serves as a fair warning, in my experience.

    I just don’t see among many companies who continue to grow stakeholder value that they are stacked with “creative” types as we might generally think of them. You might even argue the opposite.

    I’ve found that people and organisations find it hard enough to be continuously business innovative, let alone individuals being distracted and demotivated by not being or feeling that they are “creative” enough. To me that’s lost shareholder value, usually into the hands of creative consultants!


    Walter Adamson @g2m
    Certified Social Media Consultant
    Melbourne, Australia
    My social spaces and places: http://xeesm.com/walter


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