Running the creative transformation marathon (Part 2) 

Running the creative transformation marathon (Part 2) 

My last column compared an organisation that wants to become innovative with a couch potato who wants to run a marathon. Both need something that makes them want to change. Both need to check their fitness and readiness for change. Both must resolve to change and then prove their willingness by committing resources (time and money) to it.

Luckily, both can make things easier by collaborating and communicating with like-minded others who help to overcome the inevitable hurdles. Having done all that, there are four more phases a would-be marathon runner, or innovative company, needs to go through before reaching their goal.

Cultivate 1: Build momentum for a lasting change

After years on the couch, novice runners must slowly ease into regular exercise. If they are very unfit, they may need to begin by walking, then alternate between running and walking, before they can run longer distances without stopping. In this first phase, the goal is to put the inert body back into motion and to make a habit of exercising and running regularly. Every small improvement and minor achievement contributes to this aim and helps build the momentum necessary to continue to the ultimate goal.

Likewise, a lethargic company that has committed to becoming innovative needs to start by building cultural momentum for organisational creativity and innovation before permanently changing "the ways things are done around here". Using the gap analysis from the innovation readiness audit, the company should focus on initiatives that change the organisational climate to make it more creativity-friendly, for example by encouraging individuality or by asking people to suggest ideas.

Cultivate 2: Change for good

Once a novice runner has become an apprentice, they can move on to more advanced ways of running. With the help of a coach, our marathon runner-in-the-making can learn to run more efficiently, by doing coordination exercises, and faster, by running intervals or using fartlek, a technique for adding variety to longer runs. They should also be increasing their weekly total distance and start competing in shorter races to prepare for a full marathon.

Corporations in cultural transition need to take cultural change more seriously. This can be done by fighting politics and internal competition or dealing with a cultural climate that is only reactive. An external innovation consultant can help accomplish this by devising ways to counter and resolve the identified issues in a targeted way. For example, one way to counter a widespread culture of mediocrity is to enter competitions with the goal of winning an international innovation award.

Structure: Reorganise to match your new identity

Once the couch potato has become a regular runner, they need to reorganise their lives to fit their new-found passion. They might change their schedules to allow for regular training sessions or they might combine their holidays with training camps. They might also change their diet to improve their performance. 

Similarly, the evolving creativity organisation needs to adapt its organisational structure, processes and systems to make them fit the new focus on creativity and innovation. For example, to improve external market orientation, customer intimacy, decision speed and multidirectional collaboration, they might flatten the organisational structure and experiment with network models or change the HR systems to creativity-focused policies. This is also the time to confront systemic obstacles standing in the way of organisational creativity and to get rid of those who oppose creative change.

Anchor: Make the changes stick

Finally, it's time for the runner to start their first marathon. By now, they have learned how to run regularly, economically and speedily — and the final hurdle is finishing the 42.2-kilometre race. The moment they cross the finish line, they have succeeded in transforming themselves from couch potato into marathoner. But as proud as they are, and they should be, they need to set new goals lest they fall back on their couch. Plan the next race, set a faster time target for the next marathon or plan a vacation around a marathon. These things will help anchor their new identity and make it permanent.

In the same way, the newly creative organisation should focus on competing creatively and shifting from cost leadership to differentiation. They might start innovation projects that enable the company to launch differentiating, meaningful new products or introduce even more innovation initiatives to anchor the new culture for good.

It is possible. Just as a lazy, out-of-shape couch potato can remake themselves as a successful marathon runner, a bureaucratic corporate behemoth can become an agile, creative, innovation-friendly company. In both cases, it takes time, money and hard work, and it starts with strong, determined minds that are necessary to lead a change and to succeed.


Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Ltd (Thinkegy.com), an ideation and innovation company in Asia, a lecturer in business creativity and innovation leadership at Mahidol University's College of Management (www.cmmu.mahidol.ac.th) and an adjunct associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at dr.d@thinkergy.com


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