Forget Creativity: It’s A Culture of Innovation Which Counts

People who work in publishing companies are not short of creativity. Many, says Howard Scott, are brimful of ideas. What holds many of them back is the stifling corporate culture in which they work, where new ideas are not nurtured.

By Howard Scott

A few weeks’ back, I was asked to talk to a group of forty students at the Hult International Business School in London. They were coming to the end of their course on Digitising Business Plans and they wanted to explore, as a case study, how the UK’s regional press had faired.

The experience was revealing in many ways. In the way the room was virtually paperless – everything being committed straight onto iPads and other hand-helds. Revealing that a show of hands, when asked how many had bought a newspaper in the last seven days, resulted in just one, compared with two-thirds of the room when asked how many had read one within the same period. But most striking was their main interest not being in physical changes such as new formats, apps, paywalls etc, but the part played by management in determining the future. In short, what did the leadership look like around creativity and innovation, both historically and now? Good question. And one which probably deserved a fuller answer than the one I provided at the time. But I was helped out a little by reference to the appointment six months ago of Ashley Highfield as the new CEO of Johnston Press. As regular readers will know (courtesy of Ray Snoddy’s interview with him in the January/February edition of InPublishing) Highfield is widely-regarded as an accomplished creative leader from his time as head of new media and technology at the BBC and as MD of Microsoft’s consumer and online division here in the UK. Whether or not he is able to work his magic at JP remains to be seen, but it is an appointment which sets Johnston apart from its peers. And for those who struggle to see the parallels between the BBC, Microsoft and regional media, one obvious one lies in the fact that they are all creative industries, which the Department for Culture, Media & Sport defines as “those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property”.

The key word for me in that DCMS definition is ‘individual’. That’s where creativity begins its life. Yet business leaders all too often bemoan the lack of creativity existing in their organisation – the inability to come up with the new ideas which will provide profitable competitive advantage. The buzzwords of creativity appear in just about every recruitment advertisement as employers attempt to find it.

No shortage of ideas

But in my publishing experience, there’s rarely a shortage of ideas. People’s heads are full of them. What’s missing is a culture of innovation which positively seeks them out, permits them to see the light of day and determinedly provides the support, processes, structures and commitment for some to progress into profitable actions. Without a culture of innovation – which in many ways can be defined as the ability of an organisation to receive ideas and act on them – the creative process will at best be marginalised and at worst actively avoided. And there are plenty of businesses which actively (intentionally or ineptly) work against a culture of innovation.

Which brings us back to leaders - the people charged with defining the DNA of the business. I’ve experienced many different approaches to cultural innovation over the years. My work brings me into direct contact with a huge variety of managers and styles across wide-ranging industry sectors. But the ability of senior managers to operate in a creative vacuum is absolutely industry agnostic. And often the most common characteristic is that despite their own conviction and self-belief in what they are doing, it is they themselves who are ensuring the culture will never be fit for purpose.

And they have no shortage of methods, techniques and devices to call upon by which to do it. Far too many to list here. But for those of you already thinking of your own experiences, painful or otherwise, here’s my personal top 10 of the best ways to stifle individual creativity within an organisation if not kill it altogether:


No time or inclination for experimentation that requires any form of investment. Anything new must deliver a Profit On Day One. Such a demand is not only self-limiting but does more than just about anything else to indicate lack of ambition, short-termism and a bean-counter mentality.

2 Seek certainty and guarantees.

This impacts big time on the creative idea itself. A really useful way to kill an idea at gestation. If the proposer is more dogged and carries on, chances are the idea will end up being compromised in the pursuit of detail around safety and certainty.

3 Create a fear of failure.

Failure needn’t be a bad thing. In fact it is an essential component of true creativity. Ask any inventor. But fear is dreadful. It creates inertia and sucks away confidence. Play on fear and you’ll be well down the track of ensuring people never bring their ideas to you in future.

4 Insist on “business as usual”.

Few organisations outside of manufacturing, and certainly not publishers, can afford to hive-off their creative processes and actions. Nor should they. It should co-exist alongside the fundamental reality of needing to conduct business as usual. So, set up some work streams, thought channels, mood rooms, creative lounges – that sort of thing. Then when some creative work is actually done, you can hit them with the business as usual requirement.

5 Let them keep it to themselves.

Creativity feeds on interaction, contribution, challenge and stimulation. So better to let your people work in relative isolation. Get them to keep it to themselves. They should quickly tire of trying to get buy-in at a later stage that way.

6 Centralise, consolidate and impose.

One of the best ways to create the not invented here mentality. A terrific way to get people to stop all creative thought, sit back and wait for the next idea to descend on them from a very great height.

7 Play on the “regimental history”.

A more polite way of referencing the “been there, done that” scenario. And a good way to reinforce the way we do things around here. What made the organisation great in the past may well be irrelevant to success in the future. But no worries.

8 Demand detail.

Ask for lots of detail and the earlier the better. Often a sure-fire way to get rid of any remaining enthusiasm.

9 Defer to “experts”.

A really useful catch-all is to send the idea off for review by the organisation’s “experts”. That familiar black hole should be enough to ensure it never sees the light of day and the individual will, almost certainly, be left less inclined to bother next time.

10 No time.

And if all else has failed, resort to this. You’d love them to do it, but there’s just not time. Sorry. Now get back to work.

Somewhat less tongue in cheek, it follows then that in creating an innovative culture we should seek to address – and reverse - all of these top 10 traits.

But there are a few other key drivers that are worthy of inclusion:

* Understand the cost of inaction by getting clarity around what’s newly important, what it means to the organisation and what the impact is of not doing it.

* Get out of “rut stuck” by first knowing when you’re in it. Keep things fresh.

* Fail intuitively by encouraging people to test fast, fail fast, fail cheaply and adjust fast.

* Create high performing teaming that operates on trust, productive conflict, accountability, commitment and results orientation.

So, if you want to capitalise on your organisation’s latent creativity, forget all the thinking outside of the box and other hackneyed jargon. Cancel the hypnotist, stop sitting in the bath staring into space, scrap the low-key mood music, sell the table football, give the goldfish away and put down the doodle pen. Instead, take a clear look at the state of the innovative culture which exists – or the lack of it - and your part within it.

An innovative culture is not a complicated thing. Just rare.

Returning to the students at Hult, we joked about where I might put my money in terms of the future of regional media - if I were a betting man. Which I’m not. But since that session with them, I’ve come across a press release talking about the appointment of Ashley Highfield. The chairman was quoted as saying: “I am delighted that Ashley has agreed to join the board. His wide-ranging experience and knowledge of the digital world will be a real asset to the company and our online platforms, bringing an even deeper understanding of existing and emerging technologies, and an expert and realistic sense of what can be achieved in this area”. Sounds good. But this wasn’t the chairman of Johnston Press, but of William Hill PLC – the bookmakers, where Highfield has been a director since 2008.

Perhaps I ought to be a betting man after all.