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Great news – LinkedIn has announced its Top Ten Buzzwords for 2013. (It would be uplifting if ‘Death of the Listicle’ was a Top Trend for 2014, but I suspect I wish in vain.) For those of an entrepreneurial bent, those making a belated New Year Resolution,or those who see one of the primary roles of the organisation as being to constantly innovate, there might be initial cheer at two of the entries on the list:

4. Creative

5. Innovative

Those working in (or ‘passionate’ about) these categories who carried on reading when the numbered list ran out, might register a less euphoric emotion. In the previous two years, ‘Creative’ had been the top buzzword.

Not that featuring on the list is necessarily a good thing. Commenting on the top words for 2011, Nicole Williams, LinkedIn’s connection director, said:

“In this tight economy, you really need to stand out from the crowd to catch a hiring manager’s eye. If you’re using the same words that everyone else on LinkedIn is using, you’re blending in. Buzzwords are really just blank words. No one is really paying attention to them.”

Complimentary extra helpings of bubble’n’squeak (those Brussels Sprouts have to go somewhere) for those who noticed the implicit suggestion that LinkedIn is essentially a recruitment service, although her implicit irony hints at bigger truths. But as a resolution goes, prioritising coherence and quality over consistency (aka sameness) is pretty good. Creativity – which so many LinkedIn users are keen to claim as a personal attribute – is not, by and large, about blending in; Innovation may be radical or incremental (although it’s usually the latter), but it’s also disruptive.

Innovation also seems, rather perversely, to be low on the radar at present. Recently reviewing a wide pool of blogs, surveys and reports, the predicted ‘big trends for 2014’ were notably lacking in agreement: if the pundits are right, the safest bets are the arrival of Big Data in the world of HR and the on-going importance of technology as a driver (although ‘mobile’ will be the new ‘social’). Verdicts as to whether the latter represents a case of ‘old wine, new bottles’ remains to be seen, although the former does hold out the potential hope that the choice of grape blend might be informed by more than the vinters’ gut instincts in future.

Two other topics might be worth a flutter if you can get good odds: employee engagement (possibly 2013’s Topic of the Year?), and the stirring of attention on the second-tier/middle manager layer of organisations where responsibilities are increasing without any noticeable increase in support to prop up increasingly weary shoulders. As we covered in October 2013, a CIPD survey revealed that 39% of private sector line managers have received no training for their roles.

So what will put the ‘New’ into ‘New Year’? And what might stop that happening, leaving us living through “2013 – The Sequel”? The first barrier is probably risk: creativity and innovation isn’t a guarantee of success, even if an absence of them might speed up the process of failure. In an environment where resources remain tight, and may continue to do so, a reduced appetite for risk is understandable. But risk is fundamental to success: ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ may be a cliché but it’s also a truism, and risk is one of the major food groups in any organisation’s diet. (And stagnation is perhaps the biggest risk of all.)

Another barrier is often culture. As Jeffrey Phillips wrote in a 2012 Innovationexcellence.com blog, Why Corporate Culture is Important for Innovation:

When the culture adopts and sustains short term thinking, incremental improvements and an aversion to risk and uncertainty, it can be difficult to introduce even modest incremental innovation concepts, never mind larger disruptive innovation or the risks associated with “open” innovation.”

If your organisation is stagnating, particularly so in a competitive sector, Phillips strives to underline the importance of this point later in the article:

Place Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein in a corporate culture that resists innovation and we wait another decade for electric lights or special relativity. A good idea in a resistant culture is a scream in a vacuum. It simply won’t be heard.”

His recommendations for action are summarised as ‘the three Rs’: reward/recognition, recruiting and retraining – all, as he points out, activities in which HR, L&D and Talent Management teams have crucial roles to play in shaping a culture that is more receptive to and encouraging of innovation.

Resource allocation and prioritisation is another factor: talents may be in place, but not the place where they can make a creative contribution. Reviewing the construction sector recently, we discovered that Performance Management processes – another crucial part of any business – are often relegated in priority because of an overwhelming focus on project management and completion. If something as central as PM can be a victim of priorities, what price innovation? As Beth Altringer wrote recently at the Harvard Business Review blog:

Entrepreneurs can help big companies try on a bootstrapping mentality, where there is no time or budget to lose focus. This may seem counterintuitive in a larger organization. After all, big companies have the luxury of experimenting broadly, right? While that may be true in terms of financial luxury, this perception can also be misleading. It can take the perceived pressure off, while underestimating the fact that it takes dedicated time and human resources to build a promising idea into a viable product, and those resources are often already accounted for on other projects.”

Another important barrier often operates at a lower organisational level: the team. The academic research into organisational creativity identifies a divide here, in that a balance must be struck between ‘creativity’ (which includes both the generation and implementation of ideas) and ‘cohesion’ (the degree to which the group works in unity). As Barry Staw wrote in a research paper, Is Group Creativity Really an Oxymoron?:

[…] processes that transform a collection of people into a group or team – things like coordination, social norms, and hierarchy – are exactly the processes that pose limitations to variety. They work to homogenize the membership and limit its potential for deviance and novelty. At the same time, these aspects of the group experience can also help selection-retention processes. They can help teams cull a cacophony of alternatives into a chosen few so that efforts may be more focused and readily implemented.”

The cohesion of teams can hamper creativity: conflict-avoiding behaviours, the rise of internal hierarchies or dominant voices, the influence of broader corporate culture or a relatively inhospitable reaction to novel thinking can all dampen ‘the creative spirit’ during the idea generation stage, even though a collaborative team approach can benefit subsequent implementation.

So let’s finish with a thought from someone pioneering who may well, in hindsight, be considered ‘ahead of her time’: Mary Parker Follett, subject of a recent BBC article, was called ‘the prophet of management’ by Peter Drucker, and a women whose books included Creative Experience. The specific thought?

Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, not absorbed.”