It isn't just that leaders and their organizations want to innovate. Regardless of sector, the environment in which we all operate today demands that we must. More than a nice-to-have, a growing body of research supports that creativity and innovation are fundamental for organizations looking to compete, not just those looking to compete today, but for those whose aspirations extend far into the future.

In 2017, multinational professional services firm PwC released its 20th CEO Survey, which based on interviews with more than 1,300 leaders in 79 countries. Echoing the conclusion of more than a dozen leadership surveys over the last decade, leaders continue to say that creativity and innovation were top priorities in their corporate strategies and in their hiring. But it was the reasons why they sought those skills and their admissions about a lack of success in doing so that were far more revealing than what they say they need.

Across those surveyed, leaders overwhelmingly say the landscape in which they compete is unpredictable. The data makes that sound like an understatement. A stunning 82 percent conceded that both how and where economic growth would come was uncertain. 70 percent pointed to the challenge of keeping pace with technological change as an added factor making the future--and predicting it--capricious. And 65 percent allowed that rapid and ongoing shifts in consumer behavior posed further threat to their organization's growth prospects. Is it any wonder that these leaders are longing for more creative ways to respond?

But for many, a creative response seems unlikely. The same PwC study reveals that it isn't happening. Leaders again make clear that the skills they most want are those that "can't be performed by machines": creativity and innovation, leadership, emotional intelligence (EI), and adaptability. Accordingly, those are the skills they've directed their HR departments to prioritize. And yet companies are finding meeting this goal incredibly difficult to do: 77 percent finding creativity and innovation difficult to hire for, followed closely by leadership at 75 percent, EI at 64 percent, and adaptability at 61 percent.

So what's the problem? Arguably there are many contributing answers. But while much has been written about creativity and innovation and how we can gain these skills individually and in our workplaces, MIT scientist and New York Times bestselling author Sherry Turkle recently captured the core problem in a single, simple sentence:

"When the messy becomes tidy, we learn to enjoy that."

In a piece for The Washington Post, Turkle wasn't writing about corporate recruiting woes. She wasn't even writing directly about innovation, though her focus was robots and specifically a new breed of toy robots designed to be more "human-like". Their developers argue that these high tech companions can teach children about empathy and relationships, even stand in for humans as a "friend." Turkle's point was simple: It's just not that simple.

Like building a truly innovative culture or workforce, there are no shortcuts to building relationships. More to the extent we stubbornly choose to believe there are, we should anticipate getting something less in return and far below what we hope to gain. As self-evident as that may sound, that doesn't keep us from wanting to believe that there could be an easier path--the very point Turkle made so succinctly.

Just as with human relationships, exploring anything new is messy. "If we could just make it tidy," we tell ourselves, how much easier and more enjoyable our lives would be. The business equivalent is the leader who commands his or her organization to "be innovative, but don't change how we do things." It's an untenable instruction to have new thoughts and generate creative ideas, but to work, measure, organize, and operate in a steady state. It's like saying, "Be more human-like (we are a uniquely creative being, after all), but also to be predictable like a programmable robot." As Turkle puts it so well: any attempt to do so is more likely than not to produce something "superficial and inauthentic" even if in the short run it promises to be enjoyably tidy.

Published on: Dec 18, 2017
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