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Yankee Democracy at Work… The “Ingenuity” Lies Within the Ranks

This week, we'll take a not-so-happy look at the state of affairs in many organizations: underlying blocks to innovation.  Gotta look at what’s broke to be able to fix it!  Next week, I promise the happier view, looking at solutions and inspiring best practices being used by innovative companies. 

Ducks in a row According to Bloomberg Businessweek’s “Most Innovative Companies” article, “Most businesses operate in ways that are antithetical to innovation.  They want stability, predictability, avoidance of risk…”  But “innovation is more about managing risk” than avoiding it…” [i]  The functions of quality control and Six Sigma are about “control.”  “The cultures of most organizations are set up to resist fluctuation and purge deviants,”[ii] known to others as “the innovator’s DNA.”

“But innovation is all about novelty and the unexpected…. innovators upset the apple cart, and move the cheese!” [iv] “In almost every company there are the ‘rebel’ thinkers, people who are always looking for ways to improve things, solve problems, individuals that look to the future, not the present or the past.” [v]  Research varies, but reports that 50-90% [vi] of all new product innovations “fail” at even the most successful companies. 

Given this predominant modus operandi, most organizations have a lot of work to do so that employees will feel safe enough to openly share their ideas and take risks.  A great amount of trust must exist in an environment in order for innovation to take place.  Very hierarchical “Win-lose organizations usually are not trusting environments…” [vii] In short, a sense of trust, safety, and partnership are key to innovation which is “a collaborative endeavor… There is little innovation without collaboration, and there is no collaboration without trust.” [viii]

Parallel Organizations: “Skunk Works”:

Some believe that it may be more efficient for large organizations to start satellite entrepreneurial organizations to germinate and develop the innovative ideas, rather than undertaking the significant task of changing the ways and culture of the primary organization.  These sub-organizations are often called “skunk works” or “skunkworks”: “groups within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy,” tasked with working on various projects. (Wikipedia)  The term "Skunk Works" is a registered trademark of Lockheed Martin, which by some accounts, was responsible for the creation of both the practice and term around 1943. 

This model will be explored in an upcoming post, as well.  However, I will say that I am highly skeptical about the wisdom of viewing this approach as the panacea.  It may be best for some rapid solutions or time-to-market “hits.”  However, it does not solve two significant and interrelated problems.  By simply handing over creative thinking and innovation to the parallel, more agile “David” structure versus forcing the larger "Goliath" organization to reshape its management practices leaves the same problem in place: the creative ideas and full range of talents of all of its employees continue to be blocked and wasted.  “Skunk work” organizations can only do so much.  What if the creative genius of everyone within the entire primary organization was cultivated and set to work – what would be possible then? 

As the 2010 Boston Consulting Group report recently summarized in this blog pointed out (and other studies concur) – U.S. businesses do not have time to leave the creative thinking to the few.  All hands are needed on deck.  For the first time since Bloomberg Businessweek began ranking the Most Innovative Companies in 2005, the majority of corporations in the Top 25 are outside the U.S. as new global leaders emerge from Asia.

From My Soapbox… 

I believe the primary shifts that need to occur boil down to this:  “In many organizations, the Exclusive Gate real thinking is seen as the purview of a privileged few.”[ix]  There’s the rub!  From my professional experience, from what I learned in my organizational development master's program, and based on the research I have conducted thus far, innovation and management bottle-necking cannot co-exist.  That’s what many of the IBM CEO study innovation leaders were telling their colleagues.  “Flatten thy organizations!”  Lose, or certainly lessen the hierarchy. 

 “People are dying to bring their passionate, authentic selves to their jobs.  In most cases, their jobs often won’t let them.  These people often represent the undervalued intellectual capital in a company.  Choke personal creativity, and you choke that organization’s chance to flourish.” [x]

Mannequin headsAs the saying goes, “A good mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  Sadly, most organizations, from corporations to small nonprofits to governmental agencies, are wastelands of brilliant, potentially profitable or otherwise beneficial ideas that were smothered by others before they were allowed to see the light of day.

And on a More Cheerful Note

In the next post, I’ll share specific practices being utilized by some to create a “thinking organization that encourages discovery and celebrates new ideas and the people who generate them.”  And then how they gather, vet, and prototype those ideas.  I hope you'll send in suggestions for some of the best practices you've encountered, as well!  Butterfly freedom image



[iv] Langdon Morris, “Creating the Innovative Culture: Geniuses, Champions, & Leaders,” InnovationLabs. (2007).







[vi] “50 Ways to Foster a Culture of Innovation,” Idea Champions puts it at 50-70% and Wikipedia offers the 50-90% figure.







[vii] Langdon Morris, “Creating the Innovative Culture: Geniuses, Champions, & Leaders,” InnovationLabs. (2007).







[viii] Langdon Morris, “Creating the Innovative Culture: Geniuses, Champions, & Leaders,” InnovationLabs. (2007).







[ix] “Fostering an Innovative Company Culture,” EOS Strategies White Paper (2010) attributed to Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D., “Thought Partnerships Build A Company's Thinking Skills.”  (2003). 







[x] “Fostering an Innovative Company Culture,” EOS Strategies White Paper. (2010).















Colorful image, photo-like, depicting two contrasting sides of the brain. Left, blue-hued, with calculator and computer circuitry. The right, yellow-hued, with a violin and seashells.

cre·a·tiv·i·ty / krēāˈtivədē/ noun:

"The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness." –

"The process of having original ideas that have value." – Sir Ken Robinson


In a LinkedIn discussion group a while ago, a question was posed, “Which is more important: critical thinking or creative thinking?”

I was a bit taken aback by the question, since I can't really imagine one without the other. In my world-view, they should inform one another. In fact, I believe that even construing these as two independent and unrelated types of thinking is a false dichotomy. Unfortunately, it is a widely prevalent one that has been the basis of some of the limited and short-term thinking behind many of our organizational, economic, social, and environmental crises today.

Our world needs organizations filled with creative thinkers with strong skills in critical analysis, as well as analytical thinkers adept in creative ideation. And we can achieve this. We all have both sets of capabilities. They are two sides of the same coin.

Photo of Rodin's bronze "Thinker" statue: a man hunched over with his head on his hand as he contemplatesThinking with our Whole Brains


We humans are born with brains with two hemispheres for good reason:

  • Among its other functions, the “left brain” helps us with logical and sequential reasoning, vocabulary and grammar, mathematical calculations, planning, and detail. 
  • While the right hemisphere helps with spatial, contextual, empathetic, kinesthetic, artistic, and creative thinking, and synthesis.  It looks for patterns and connections, even those that may not be readily apparent. 

Many of us may lean towards one type of thinking, but it’s a matter of choice (including the choice to resist peer pressure) as to whether we primarily exercise one hemisphere, or use our entire [and for believers among you, “God-given”] brain and apply what some refer to as "whole brain thinking." (Hermann Solutions and author Dan Pink's talks on A Whole New Mind.)

From a recent Psychology Today article, "The highest levels of creativity require both divergent thinking" (the ability to generate multiple ideas and possible solutions) "and convergent thinking" (the ability to deduce a single correct factual answer) "[which has] long been known in creativity research. [In the] Geneplore model, creativity involves a cyclical process of generating ideas and then systematically working out which ideas are most fruitful and implementing them."

How our collective creative imaginations became buried alive

The northern European-dominated U.S. culture and its current public education system strongly favors “left-brain” linear thinking. To explore the effects of this approach to education on the innate creative imaginations of children, in the 1960s Dr. George Land led a multi-year NASA-funded study. 1,600 children in a Head Start program were tested on their divergent or “out of the box” thinking abilities.

  • Of children 4-5 years old, 98% tested at the “genius” level for divergent thinking
  • But by ages 14-15, the numbers had gone down to 12%!  These youngsters had not lost their capacities for divergent thinking, but peer pressure to conform in order to a) “fit in” and not seem “weird*” to other kids, and/or to b) give “the one right answer” in school (convergent thinking) had already trained these adolescents to suppress their own creative imaginations.
  • By age 25, only 2% of 280,000 adults tested in the genius range. –Woe is us!  (George Land's TED Talk.)

Land wrote, "What we have concluded is that non-creative behavior is learned."

According to Human Resource expert John Putzier in his highly engaging book, Get Weird: 101 Innovative Ways to Make Your Company a Great Place to Work, the 2% of adults who do manage to hold onto their divergent thinking abilities are often considered “too weird”* to be hired by many employers as they don't fit the expected molds. Or when they do find employment, they often learn to keep their heads down and their ideas to themselves. 

*(Putzier says the word “weird” is intended as a pejorative often used as shorthand for anything considered to be “different.”)

The case for Both/And….Drawing of the top of a person peering into his/her brain: right side, with green living things flowing out, and the blue left with numbers


Unlike merely “imaginative” musings, (as with the definitions at the top of this article) some define creativity as a form of thinking that presents "the right solutions at the right time." Given the opportunity, these can then result in innovation. 

Solid analysis is a prerequisite for creative solutions:

  • Recognizing the internal and external dimensions and factors of a problem
  • Exploring the components of possible solutions
  • The art of successfully inspiring and persuading others

The most brilliant thinkers and innovators have built their imaginative creations on foundations of significant amounts of critical thinking. Truly creative thinking results from an intersection of analysis, imagination, and synthesis. And when given the requisite support, innovation can be the result. 

It is no surprise that the standout leaders in the 2010 IBM CEO study (see summary in previous post) who fostered creative thinking throughout their organizations also found that increased efficiency and profitability resulted. The two equal and complementary hemispheres of our brain exist together to be used together. Either half used in isolation, is limited and far less effective:

  • Ungrounded imaginative musings that don’t reflect interrelationships and what is truly possible go nowhere.
  • Analytical scrutiny bereft of exploring creative possibilities and alternatives to what it views as “current reality” often overlook the larger picture and more comprehensive solutions.

The most effective problem solving requires creative thinking grounded in critical analysis — a brilliant, inspiring, (and perhaps inspired) union.


— Creative thinking is often the smartest thinking! 



Originally written February 2011.  Revised January 2018.


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