Creativity and Innovation: Embracing Happy Accidents

Do limitations enhance or dampen creativity?

This question, first posed to me by a college admission board, is one that I have returned to many  times—toiling over a printing press as an art student, exploring social barriers to organizational learning in my doctoral work, and in my current role at Communispace.  Nowadays, this question seems more relevant than ever: We need to creatively re-imagine our social systems—finance, government, education, healthcare and business—with limited resources.  How do we do more with less?

In my college essay, I argued that limitations were necessary for creativity.  And my experience with art reinforced this stance.  Working within the constraints of specific media—mushing goopy oil paint across a canvas, making unintended gouges in woodcuts or etchings—often resulted in “happy accidents”: new ideas or techniques that organically emerged.  And sometimes lack of resources—no money for paint—led me to discover new pallets out of necessity (e.g., the color yellow!). Wired Magazine’s Scott Dadich, similarly argues that fewer resources lead to better decisions and that the restrictions of the editorial page enable creativity.

Happy accidents are harder to nurture in everyday organizational life.  Harvard’s Teresa Amabile has studied creativity “in the wild” and her analysis of 12,000 journal entries illuminates creativity barriers in the workplace.  Hectic distractions prevent people from deeply engaging in problems, competition among peers undermines open debate, downsizing provokes fear…and climates of fear do not support beak-through thinking (creativity spikes after a day of “happiness”, and languishes in times of uncertainty).

Last year I interviewed Communispace clients that were championing listening and innovation; one quality their companies all shared was a culture open to new ideas and perspectives.  Embracing innovation means embracing uncertainty, creative “dry spells”, and failure as well.  Companies must innovate while staying profitable and competitive; to do so they need established “safe havens” for creative work.

At Communispace, demands have increased for communities explicitly focused on new product development and innovation.  And we have best practices to recruit and facilitate for co-creation. Communities—especially when they are protected from public view and facilitated to bring consumers, or employees and consumers, together in open dialogue—are one solution.  They are a Petrie dish for experimentation, a safe place where companies can fail quickly and accelerate the learning curve, and in them the predominant emotion is happiness, not fear*.

*I can say this because I have actually counted “emotion” words in our communities…. Ah, the wonders of text analytics!