business creativity

June 28, 2021 •

6 min reading

Business creativity: Truths and myths with Dr Marc Stierand

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Dr Marc Stierand, Director of the Institute of Business Creativity (IBC) and Associate Professor at EHL, takes us on a thought-provoking journey around the question of creativity in business. What does business creativity really imply, how does it differ from innovation and how should companies encourage it?

What is creativity in business?

In the art world, creativity from a developmental perspective is asocial because it is an internal process and does not have to lead to useful output for anybody else. In the business world, this is different. Here, we see creativity as the single most crucial input for innovation: the socio-cultural acceptance of a creative idea. Therefore, business creativity is all about creative ideas that are new and useful, appropriate or valuable in some form. Although the individual creator is still essential, there is much more to it.

Sometimes the worlds of art and business overlap, like in the case of haute cuisine. In comparison to food that keeps you alive, one could argue that an haute cuisine dish in a Michelin-starred restaurant is useless and simply an unnecessary luxury. But this would be like comparing apples to pears. Which is the most creative idea: a cure for cancer or Ferran Adria’s Melon Caviar? Everybody would certainly agree that the cure for cancer is more useful and certainly more important because it can save many lives, but Ferran Adria’s Melon Caviar is appropriate and creative in haute cuisine because it is aesthetically pleasing for all the senses. It is an experience that consumers look for when going to a Michelin-starred restaurant. Comparing the two is meaningless.


To what extent does creativity matter in the business world?

This is a fundamental question and can easily be misunderstood because people generally associate or replace creativity with innovation. As I said before, innovation and creativity are not the same, so it does matter. Should all businesses care about creativity? Yes, they should. Should all businesses become innovators? Most businesses should not. What does this mean? When approaching innovation as a strategic focus, most businesses should not become innovators because it is often very costly and almost always very risky. That is, you may not want to spend all your creative energy on creating highly novel products or services. But, as any good entrepreneur, you should certainly focus on using your creativity for all other business areas and functions: processes, people management, marketing and communication.

You can sell traditional brasserie food, but this should not hold you back from being creative in how you sell it. Sometimes, you do not even have to reinvent the wheel, but look elsewhere for creative solutions and translate them for your business. Picasso is believed to have said that “Good artists copy, great artists steal” – with their eyes or ears, that is.


Are there techniques to make employees more creative?

This is another essential question and perhaps the most interesting for the business world: “How do we become more creative? Or, how do we lead others to become more creative?” Unfortunately, the answer is less straightforward than businesses want it to be. There is no such thing as a method that makes people immediately more creative. However, there are ways of going against the grain that can help people step out from the accepted frames of thinking, believing and feeling that one has been forced to learn and assimilate through socialization. But this is not sufficient. Organizations need to create an environment that allows for creativity. Then they need to accept that they should only manage this environment, not the creative individuals themselves.

Many organizations, especially when they are of a certain age, size, and prestige, are very good at killing creativity. There are many reasons for this, but overall, these organizations tend to follow a defender strategy simply because they have a lot to lose and, therefore, a lot to defend. Anybody inside or outside the organization trying to shake the boat, regardless of how good the intentions are and how positive the outcome might be for the organization, might face a brick wall. The bricks are made of old habits, newly invented procedures, and performance indicators that can only capture system compliance. For these organizations, more compliance means higher performance. The most creative people are often the least compliant because their ideas and values drive them. Organizations cannot expect them to always line up with the given values. 

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So what should companies do to increase creativity?

Creativity means wandering in the unknown and constantly asking, "What if?" Together with my friend and IBC Associate, Charalampos Mainemelis, Director of the SEV Center of Excellence in Creative Leadership and Professor of Organizational Behavior at ALBA Graduate Business School, we asked in a paper that we presented at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting "What if play were the core motive of work?" Playing and playfulness are essential for creativity to arise and remain. Still, they are frightening for organizations with a very solemn culture. Many organizations are too much like Buckingham Palace and too little like Hogwarts. They are impressive but have lost their magic.

Smaller and more entrepreneurial companies can be great role models here. For example, the famous chef, Ferran Adria, founded ‘ElTaller', a creative workshop for his restaurant ‘ElBulli.’ He brought together people from different disciplines intending to create the next best dish, experience or technique. At ‘ElTaller’ you would find an immense array of ingredients, spices, machinery, tools, and the team would play around with all these things. Playing does not mean they were not serious. Playing gets the creative juices flowing by including all the senses. The creative process is never a purely intellectual exercise; it's sensory, it’s intuitive. It is true even in the most abstract domains, such as mathematics, or when your ‘things’ are out of touch, such as astrophysics. You need to smell the freshly cut ginger, and you need to see the flower blossom to be able to start imagining.


How can we think outside the box?

This is the fascinating but paradoxical side of creativity. To create something new and useful in any field, you need to be knowledgeable in that field. It means that you need to become part of what Wittgenstein called the ‘knowledge tradition.’ We inherit this tradition from those who have been in our field before. Being creative means not strictly following the tradition; it often means going against the tradition. How do we achieve both at the same time? How can we know all that is there to know, not reinvent the wheel, and yet, simultaneously disregard some aspects of that same tradition to create new knowledge?

My friend and IBC Associate, Viktor Dörfler from Strathclyde Business School, specializing in human mastery and AI, often jokes about this with his MBA students in class. He asks them: “I am a creative guy. Would you like me to be creative about your eye surgery?” Clearly, nobody ever wants his creative input for their eye surgery, however, most of his students would undoubtedly agree that Viktor is creative. Recently, he suggested that AI could play a valuable role in helping us think outside the box in the best sense of the word, not being bound by the knowledge tradition.


What's the business creativity conclusion?

Business creativity is all about creative ideas that are new and useful, appropriate or valuable. At the IBC, we argue that all businesses must engage in creativity. However, not all should focus on an innovation strategy. Most companies do not have to invent highly creative products or services. Rather, they should think creatively about their business at large, including processes, people management, marketing, and communication. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a method that makes people immediately more creative - but, the IBC can certainly bring a bit of Hogwarts' magic to companies. We can help to create an environment and management culture that encourages employees, managers and directors to step out from the accepted frames of thinking, believing and feeling that hinders them from being imaginative.


Dr Marc Stierand is Director of the Institute of Business Creativity (IBC) and Associate Professor at EHL; he is also a former haute cuisine chef and one of the country’s leading business creativity researchers. Dr Stierand founded the IBC, EHL’s longest-serving institute which prides itself on thinking outside the box. The IBC is a transdisciplinary hub that aims to provide research and knowledge relevant to practice. The first-class research it offers is informed by many years of industry experience, creative attitudes to outcomes and a more lateral and inventive approach to finding solutions.

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Associate Professor of Service Management and the Director of the Institute of Business Creativity at EHL