Hickory’s story showcases creativity in how a firm and groups within the firm collaborate and engage with each other and with the market, rather than creativity as a skill or capability fostered to develop creative products and services. It’s this marriage of creative engagement, of new and useful ways of acting, with the invention of new and useful things that is the essence of a creative business. In a world full of interdependencies where accomplishing anything involves a multitude of stakeholders, getting things done depends crucially on the ability to work effectively with others. And when the thing to be done is new, working effectively with others, more often than not, means working in ways that haven’t been tried before. It’s what allows an organization to respond to unforeseen and previously unknown problems, transform a problem into opportunity, and find opportunity where others didn’t think to look. It’s the kind of creativity, born of interactions across many teams, places, times, and problems, that can—given enough time—transform a business, an industry, or the entire market.
A firm is only as creative as its least creative team
The need for creative engagement becomes clear when one considers that, in organizations composed of teams of teams (as many modern organizations are),7 any particular team’s creativity is contingent on the creativity of others. Unlike in the heyday of the industrial revolution, when simpler production processes and tight vertical integration made it easier for a business to be creative as a whole, the past few decades have seen the unbundling of the firm, with increasingly complex internal functions broken up into neat packages, with suppliers, partners, clients, or even customers taking on responsibility for packages.8 This unbundling means that organizations have transformed themselves into complex webs of relationships that span across internal groups and external ecosystems. It also means that the average organizational team is small and unable to accomplish much on its own, and hence must rely on the actions of others to turn a creative idea into reality.
Consider a chain of fast food restaurants whose marketers have determined that adding a constantly changing item to the menu, a burger of the week, will attract repeat customers. Novel (to the chain) techniques and ingredients—such as a black bun or a sweet and savory filling, or a burger using ingredients from other cultures, or possibly even ingredients recently developed in the lab—will result in something that stands out from the usual menu items, something with colors and textures perfect for social media. A burger of the week might be just the creative idea, the potential innovation, the restaurants need to catch the public’s eye.
For the burger-of-the-week campaign to succeed, the restaurants will have to coordinate many small changes across the organization and its ecosystem. Signage and menus need to be changed to include that week’s burger, and the burger must be added to cash register systems so that it can be sold. Any novel cooking techniques need to be integrated into kitchen processes, requiring training, at a minimum, and possibly additional tooling. Different ingredients must be sourced from (likely new) suppliers and integrated into the supply chain. And all this needs to be pulled apart at the end of every week and redone in new configurations for each successive burger of the week. To accomplish this, marketing, supply chain, procurement, IT, finance, and frontline restaurant workers and operational teams must all work with each other in ways they are not accustomed to, at least until the burger-of-the-week program becomes established.
The story is the same for Hickory and DFMA. Developments affecting one part of the process, such as the integration of 3D modeling tools with custom engineering plugins to calculate part weights, structural loads, and centers of gravity, informed beneficial changes in other parts of the process, such as performing engineering before design instead of the other way around as in a conventional build. Factory production of modular components made possible a wider range of materials and techniques, such as using low-carbon geopolymers instead of concrete. Because it departs so radically from conventional construction, the DFMA process could not be assessed with established institutional risk models; this made it difficult to obtain debt financing, causing Hickory to seek alternative ways to fund its early DFMA construction projects. And so on.
These examples highlight the value of distributed creativity9 as well as of creative ways of engaging both within and without the organization. But it also highlights the difficulty. When a creative outcome depends on the sum of many creative acts across the organization and its ecosystem, the effort can stall if any of the participants cannot flex in the needed way. And flexibility, unfortunately, is often hard to come by. The culprit? Institutionalized scalable efficiency.
Efficiency trumps creativity
Almost by definition, scalable efficiency designs creativity out of organizational activities. It prioritizes simplification and standardization as the means to efficiency, prescribing a correct way of doing things for everyone across the organization. Events and behaviors that fall outside these constraints are “exceptions,” undesirable and wasteful disruptions to the process. Tightly specified responsibilities and deliverables provide little room for trial and experimentation. Performance metrics for departments, teams, and individuals drive them to reduce waste and increase productivity rather than to experiment with new ideas and approaches. Formal contracts with outside parties and performance agreements among internal groups constrain creative behavior, as teams have little incentive to (or might be actively prevented from) departing from stipulated norms. These restrictions are the result of strategies that promotes a small set of anchor products or services that lock in standardized production and supply chain processes to drive scale efficiencies and control quality, with few variations permitted.
We can see how this would work against creativity in the burger-of-the-week example. The supply chain team may balk at sourcing ingredients from unfamiliar and so unproven vendors, or allow it only after a lengthy vetting and approval process. Procurement policies may prohibit ordering signs and menus in smaller quantities than would qualify for a volume discount. Learning and development may not be authorized to contract with instructors to teach line cooks new techniques. Under these circumstances, our fictitious marketing department has the choice of either convincing other teams to step around contracts, service-level agreements, and organizational policies that inhibit realization of the creative idea, or going rogue and establishing new, possibly unsanctioned relationships to bring the idea to life.
That’s not to say that firms built around scalable efficiency don’t try to be more creative. Typically, improving creativity at such firms is approached in two ways. The first is to establish a dedicated creative group, such as “innovation,” “R&D,” or “design,” whose job it is to be creative for the firm, developing new products and processes. The second is to teach creativity methodologies to operating teams, who are then expected to apply them to their daily work. But both of these approaches commonly fail. The first fails because a creative department has no operational role or responsibilities, and so finds itself disconnected from and unable to influence what the operational teams are doing. It may generate a wealth of creative ideas but few of them will find their way to execution as the creative department’s mandate to be creative is no match for operational pressure to be efficient. The second approach fails because operational teams often struggle to make use of the creativity techniques they have been taught. They too may generate their fair share of creative ideas, but find themselves unable to put them into practice as they run into roadblocks thrown up by the processes, metrics, and time constraints they must work within.
The commonly used “Four P’s” framework for the factors influencing creativity10 is helpful in understanding why these approaches fall short. According to this concept, creativity is a function of product, person, process, and place.11 Product is the dependent variable, the output of the formula: the creative work. The other three P’s are the independent variables, the things that we can control, that determine if our product will be new and useful, creative. Person is the individual (or team) doing the creating, their ambitions, attitudes, skills, background, and experience. Process is the creative process, encompassing the entire creative journey through multiple phases of generating ideas and then winnowing them down to arrive at a novel and useful solution (as opposed to techniques such as brainstorming or design thinking). Finally, place is the setting in which the work is done, not just the physical surroundings (as is often noted) but also the larger social and organizational environment that shapes creativity by determining what is easy and what is hard to do, and includes the metrics, assumptions, and principals that are the foundation of a firm’s operating model.
The two methods described above focus on person. The first treats creativity as the responsibility of particular creative individuals rather than being distributed across the firm. The second focuses on the techniques used within the team, the workers’ creative skills, without empowering the team to establish new ways of working with stakeholders across the organization and its ecosystem. Absent a place and process conducive to creativity—flexible, iterative, adaptable—a singular focus on person will get an organization nowhere. While person is undeniably important, process, place, and even products are equally important, as creativity emerges from the interactions between the four P’s.