What can we learn from the most innovative cultures in the world?

What can we learn from the most innovative cultures in the world

By Gaia Grant and Andrew Andrew

How to build an innovation hothouse

icon_hrm_onlineAdapted excerpt from The Innovation Race book, originally published in a similar format as an article online by Human Resources Media with the title 'What can we learn from the most innovative cultures in history?'

How is it possible to maximise creative potential in your organisation? This article explores how to identify, train and retain the best creative talent for more innovative results.

Some cultures simply do it better.

Specific locations around the world have been found to produce the greatest concentration of creative geniuses at different points in time. Certain parts of Europe during the Renaissance and classical Athens have, for example, been hothouses for the development of creative talent.

Researchers have tried to identify what factors have led to this interesting phenomenon for the last 60 years. In these ‘creativogenic’ cultures, it has been found that certain social, economic and political cycles all align to create the most conducive environment for creative growth.

We have distilled the critical factors identified down to 4 key principles: a foundation of freedom with guidance, openness to diversity and access to varied stimuli and resources plus focus, targeted engagement and interaction, and transformative yet stable approaches.

So how is it possible to apply these principles today to best support creative growth at each phase of the innovation process?

Guided freedom

Innovation starts with ideation. And the best ideas will only come where there is a foundation of freedom. 

Psychologists believe personal freedom through autonomy to be one of the key developmental stages that helps us grow from dependent children to responsible, independent, creative and ultimately fulfilled adults.

Democracies typically encourage more free thinking and provide the opportunities for experimentation that enable creativity. The engagement of diverse political parties and ideas has been found to produce higher rates of creative activity and output, and these open societies contrast with ‘insular societies’ in which only one political philosophy or party is represented.

Similarly, in organisations it is important to ensure people feel free enough to challenge existing ways of thinking and doing things to consider alternative options. This allows for the most novel new ideas.

Yet the little recognised secret to success with this factor is that this freedom needs to be supported and appropriately guided towards productive innovation.

Quick check:

  • Are there the opportunities for people to be empowered to take actions quickly without fear of reprisal?
  • Do procedures provide guidance based on purposeful principles rather than being restrictive?
  • Are there opportunities for people to be involved in decision making at all levels?

Targeted openness

After the initial innovation process starts with the foundation of freedom, there also need for deliberate opportunities to connect with and learn from others in order to stimulate diverse ideas.

Ideally, brainstorming will start with individual ideas, coming from a position of empowerment, that are built on and developed through a shared process. It is possible to draw on a wide range of ideas and perspectives. By ensuring there is a diverse group of individuals involved in the brainstorming process, and by ensuring openness and connections to other ideas and organisations.

Ensuring there is access to a wide range of resources will also be important for innovation. Today that will typically mean access to the latest technology that can best enable creative collaboration.

The secret to success with openness is to ensure it is also targeted as you start to zoom in on potential great ideas and solutions.

Quick check:

  • Is there is an acceptance and respect of diversity in the organisation?
  • Are there opportunities for people to connect with each other in meaningful ways?
  • Is access to and learning from multiple sources encouraged?

Group engagement

The solution development phase of the innovation process involves bringing together the
diverse ideas of individuals into unified team solutions. It requires a transition
from individual attention and focus to utilising the benefits of a collective approach.

This can be a long and intense process, as it can involve combining, pulling apart and recombining different concepts until unique and practical solutions emerge. It can involve testing and prototyping to come up with structured solutions.

The secret to success with engagement is being able to assimilate the passion ofindividuals with the synthesis of a group approach (moving from knowledge generation to knowledge integration).

Quick check:

  • Is there a shared commitment to the vision and values of the organisation?
  • Are there opportunities for people to actively work with each other in developing potential solutions?
  • Do people build on each others’ ideas to achieve the best outcomes?

Grounded flexibility

When it comes to the crunch, you can have all the great ideas in the world, but if they are not translated into action they will never come to fruition as innovations.

Following the testing and prototyping phase, it is therefore important to ensure the culture change process supports the innovation. This stage should help to ensure long-term sustainable change.

Interviews with survivors of Hurricane Katrina found that creative thinking — in particular the qualities of flexibility and originality — assisted with emotional recovery after the crisis.

This means there needs to be evidence of the sort of adaptability that can lead to resilient action in your organisation — a balance between both stability and flexibility for the better implementation of new ideas

The key factor here is the ability to learn and develop resilience to transform through the change along with clear systems and structures to support ongoing success.

Quick check:

  • Is there the belief that individuals can design and create change?
  • Is there a change management strategy in place for when new innovations are implemented?
  • Are there support systems and structures in place that will support the follow through to implementation?

Identifying how to implement these elements of ‘creativogenic’ cultures in your organisation can help you to create your own hothouse for innovation. You may be surprised at the creative talent that emerges as a result.

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