Creating the atmosphere where Creativity occurs by Richard Kielbon

In 1815, a letter was published in which Mozart described his creative process. “When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone and of good cheer…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.”

In other words, the composition appeared to him at once in a flash of insight as whole and complete. This quote describes the perfect moment of genius. In the many, many years since this letter was published, it has been used as a model for creativity in our personal lives and in business. We’ve learned to structure our lives looking for that ah-hah.

But there is a problem: Mozart did not write this letter. It is a forgery. Mozart worked at his compositions a little at a time, with a great deal of work along the way – just like most of us would. Creativity is not so much the product of grand inspiration as it is a product of focused, hard work; and that creates hope for all of us. It turns out that all of us are pretty capable of creativity. But in businesses, waiting for this myth to unfold keeps the creative output of an organization bottled up. Why?

A new kind of leadership

If we are all capable of creativity, the answer for increased organizational creativity lies in having a new kind of leadership that knows how to draw out that potential. As Linda Hill says in her new book, Collective Genius, “Leaders of innovation create organizations where people are willing and able to do the work of innovation, where everyone has the opportunity to contribute his or her slice of genius to the collective genius of the whole.”

Even if this new notion makes sense, it is not so easy to implement. Hill and her colleagues found a widely shared, but mistaken belief that “leaders that are ‘good’ in all other respects would also be good leaders at innovation.” This is not true. Instead, leadership in innovation demands new, special kinds of skills – a new kind of leader.

The creative environment

The leader of an innovative company must abandon the old school idea of the leader being the person to come up with ideas and sell them – of the leader “managing” people toward a predetermined outcome. Instead, the job of the innovation leader is to create an environment – an environment where the organization and its entire people generate ideas. In order to accomplish this, two critical capacities must be created in the organization.

Innovation is work too

First is to create in people the willingness to do the work of innovation. The leader’s task is to create a community that understands and embraces the idea that producing ideas and beliefs is a part of the ethos of daily work. To do so requires that the leader understands and teaches values and rules of engagement that promotes this way of thinking.

Second, leaders must create for the organization the ability to innovate. That involves teaching the value of openness and the friction that comes with that. Tolerance of, even encouragement of small experiments; mistakes must be allowed. The leader must teach the agility to shift thinking. The organization must learn the tenacity of independently pursuing focused purposes.

An organization can create works of genius like the Mozarts of the world do: through focused, hard work. But for an organization to accomplish brilliance, leadership must create the right environment. The new leadership is about creating the right conditions for people to flourish and contribute their genius.

Sources: “How to Fly a Horse,” Ashton; “Collective Genius,” Hill et. al.; “Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader,” Ibarra

Kielbon , a friend of Port O Call, is an architect, practicing in Spokane

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