Creativity at Work
In his study of organizations that foster innovation and creativity, Robert Sutton found that the most creative ones are also the least efficient, least organized, and often the least pleasant places in which to work. Some managers find it difficult to support innovation and creativity, partly because their primary focus is on performance and any change could be disruptive. As an example, Sutton describes how Gary Starkweather at Xerox invented the laser printer but was confronted with the problem of introducing change. Despite enormous resistance from Xerox managers and fellow researchers, Starkweather complained to senior management about how his idea and career were being ruined by “laboratory dogma.” To correct the situation, Starkweather was transferred to the research facility in Palo Alto, California. The result was that he was able to perfect the Xerox 9700 laser printer, which was introduced to the market and became a best-selling product.
Sutton describes “successful heretics” as ones who believe passionately in what they envision, and are often very good at convincing others to buy into their ideas. Apple cofounder Steve Jobs has what he calls his ”reality distortion field,” in which he convinces those around him to suspend disbelief and give him their full commitment. Burt Rutan did something similar with the development team for the Voyager aircraft that can fly around the globe without refueling. Rutan's edict to his engineers was to have confidence in nonsense because any idea might be the answer. Creative ideas come from the most persuasive and committed people. They have the best chance of success.
Introducing creativity into an organization generates many problems because of the reluctance to accept change. Creative individuals follow their own compass and can drive their colleagues and managers crazy. However, they can also push their companies into making winning gambles that they would never have made on their own. Richard Drew directly defied 3M's CEO, William McKnight, to continue work on what became masking tape. His work also made key contributions to Scotch tape. At Hewlett-Packard (HP), engineer Chuck House was ordered by David Packard to stop work on a display monitor that was deemed unsuccessful. House believed so strongly in the monitor that he used his own vacation time to show the prototype to potential customers. He was able to convince HP to put it into production, and it ended up producing $35 million in revenue for the company. David Packard later gave House a medal for having extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal expectation of an engineer's duty.
“Innovation” is becoming a key word in today's competitive world. Microsoft and Merck have both been successful at hiring talented people who are pathfinders and who are good at improvising. Jack Welch at GE set up 60 independent ventures designed to teach people to be entrepreneurial. He recognized, however, that some of the 60 would fail. When General Motors (GM) first went into business, it was innovative and offered cars in a choice of colors at a time when the Ford Motor Company only offered cars in black. GM also introduced an innovation in financing that allowed people to buy cars without having cash in hand.