Creativity Has Become the Elephant In the Board Room

It's a fundamental paradox: why are business leaders refusing to do the thing that they know they most should?

In 2012, politicians, economists and expert commentators will undoubtedly continue to speak out on how creativity and innovation are essential if we are to overcome the current economic malaise. Yet, for every creative company that commits to doing thrilling things, there are many more dull businesses throttling new ideas. For every good Apple, you get a sack of rotten corporations afraid of innovation and suffocating positive change. Fearful and risk-averse, too many large firms have consigned creativity to the periphery and see it as alien to the ways of doing business to which they have become accustomed -- especially in a downturn.

Yet, talk to the leaders of these businesses and it is clear that some appetite for creativity is there. Research we have conducted amongst 300 UK business leaders tells us that 96% agree that creativity is important in business strategy. 51% believe it to be essential. But, despite this, 89% say that it is never discussed in board meetings, and 41% admit that no one is responsible for creativity in their business. It's a fundamental paradox: why are business leaders refusing to do the thing that they know they most should?

It is easy for some to attribute this to an unavoidable problem with large organisations -- get too big and too complex and creativity becomes impossible, the argument goes. But this is wrong. There is no reason why the culture of large corporations should not be able to foster creative concepts. Some of the most brilliant inventions throughout history have been borne out of a large number of people, all with their own skills and strengths, working together towards a greater goal. The steam train, the motor car, the internet, MP3's; don't be fooled into thinking that these world-changing innovations came about as a result of a single person tinkering about in a shed -- their development and democratisation could only ever have been achieved through the effort of large corporations. Far from being the enemy of creativity, large organisations are in fact the ideal hotbeds within which innovation and new ideas grow.

Our work with Deloitte, an international giant with 180,000 employees in over 140 countries, is a case in point. Despite its size, and the challenges of harnessing ideas and agreement across it, Deloitte has shown that it is a forward-thinking company and a pioneer of innovative ideas. Since defining the brand positioning of 'Always One Step Ahead' we've helped install a culture of creativity that is permeating the organisation and encouraging all of its people to participate in.

Here's an example. Proving there is scope for innovation in every brief, when we were asked to create a corporate screensaver to be used by Deloitte employees worldwide, a very different idea was born. The modern computer no longer needs a screensaver -- there's no such thing as screen burn on an LCD screen -- but we realised there was something much bigger that could be saved: energy, CO2, our planet. From this, PlanetSaver was created. A bespoke application, PlanetSaver encourages users to put their computers to sleep when they are idle, rather than wasting energy with needless screensaver graphics, and then calculates how much has been saved in real terms. In its first twelve months of use enough energy was saved to power a family home for more than eleven years.

This is just one example of how creative thinking in large organizations really does bring about the kind of economic and social change that the world needs right now. Yet there remain too few examples from other corporations of similar behaviours. Sadly, most large organizations have grown creatively complacent, stuck in an unimaginative rut and focused on short-term risk avoidance. Rather than embracing the possibilities and opportunities that come from approaching business challenges with entrepreneurial flair, creativity is often considered as something impossible to control and an unnecessary distraction. When corporate leaders assess their options they are all too ready to write it off.

This must change. The need for companies to address the creativity vacuum is becoming more pressing than ever as it becomes clear that, in today's economy, innovation has become the main driver of growth. Business leaders need to wake up to new possibilities and break from the dull practices and bad habits of their recent past. They need to empower their most creative people and elevate their status. And those creative minds must stand up and take their share of responsibility, shouting loudly with new ideas. Companies need to spend less time and money on routine management consultancy and more on buying in creative expertise that can help them rethink and shake up their business in inspiring and transformational ways.

Creativity is no longer something that can be ignored. It is essential to business success.

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