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Is Theodore Levitt’s article “Creativity is not enough” still accurate today?

16 March 2012

Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.

 

I just finished reading Creativity is not enough, an HBR article that Theodore Levitt wrote more than 40 years ago. As the title indicates, the father of globalization theory says the creativity is a good thing, but that companies should not pay too much attention to creative types because they might be harmful to the business. My first thought was “Wow, Theodore Levitt was pretty tough on creatives“… but it’s still an interesting read, especially today where everybody is praising creativity as the panacea for innovation and competitiveness. Here are some excepts of this crusade against creative types, and some thoughts about today’s situation.

Many people who are full of ideas simply do not understand how an organization must operate in order to get things done

The idea that Levitt communicates is basically that creatives are irresponsible individuals and chronic complainers. That’s a rough one, but if you read the article you’ll see that he isn’t tender with the creative types, as he calls them. The reason why he lays off creative input is that, following his own words, “organizations tend to be inhospitable to creativity and innovation“. That’s for sure: not only are organizations intrinsically resistant to change, but they also have to be efficient in order to make money – “to get things done“, Levitt says. But surprisingly, he goes even further by saying that an organization should not let in too many ideas: “One of the collateral purposes of an organization is to be inhospitable to a great and constant flow of ideas and creativity“.

illustration-funnel

Image via Harvard Business Review

Well, Levitt wrote his piece in 1963. In today’s age of Open Innovation and crowdsourcing, this type of statement would probably not have been published in the Harvard Business Review, or would it? Today, we hear everywhere that the purpose of an organization is to be open to a wide array of ideas and creative inputs, which is certainly due to the explosion of data and the emergence of a participative culture among individuals. But thinking about it, Levitt is fundamentally right, because he means that organizations should stay focused, but not resistant to everything exogenous:

What may be required is […] a specialized group whose function is to receive ideas, work them out, and follow them through in the necessary manner

And that’s exactly what happens today. Organizations don’t only adopt a stance towards creativity, but they are actively organizing the reception of ideas and/or information. Whether it is by setting up Open Innovation departments (Hustoun & Sakkab, 2006), by sourcing innovation outside (Linder, Jarvenpaa & Davenport, 2003) or by collaborating with so-called Innomediaries (Sawhney, Prandelli & Verona, 2003), today’s organizations are getting organized to receive ideas, work them out, and follow them. So, even though I was surprised by the words used by Levitt in his article, he was right:

Ideation deals with the generation of ideas, innovation deals with their implementation

Innovators are the people who do things, not those who think about what could be done. But today, there is something that Levitt could have thought of: the internet. Today, for the first time, an idea can have great value even if you’re not willing to implement them: look at the rise of social product development platforms like Quirky or Ahhha. These platforms rely on the creative engagement of people who just have ideas, and they can (time will tell!) make money by implementing these ideas, from the design to the supermarket shelves. Quirky even asks people to pay 10$ to submit an idea…

social product development ideation

 

I wonder what Levitt would think about that. He said that “the ability to come up with brilliantly novel ideas can be destructive to business“, but today’s situation shows that ideas are not only actively sought by companies, but they can even be at the foundation of new business models.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 March 2012 20:15

    Wrong conception of “Creativity”.

    The manufacturing era was about promoting “Robot types” up the management chain, but capable of holding a few creative folks on leash – to produce the required goods. Levitt is discussing how to hold that leash.

    I questions the very notion of “Creativity”. It is about higher intelligence and ability to think, work and produce results in uncertain and rapidly evolving situations. It is a comprehensive quality that is now needed overall and not some specialist good to have stuff.

    Creativity is married to risk without the option of divorce. Companies that embrace it , have to suffer through and learn to come to terms with it; those that that don’t, have to pay some snake oil salesmen on creativity – before they pay for their funeral.

    There are plenty of jobs now for snake oil salesmen.

  2. donbates permalink
    21 November 2013 19:12

    Levitt is simply warning us not to waste time and money on ideas that haven’t been weighed against standard marketing QsZ: Why this idea and not another? How much will we have to spend to find out if the idea is sound? Is there a substantial market for the end result? Will customers buy it? Are there competing products? Can we make a serious profit or achieve some other measureable ROI from implementation?

    As Thomas Jefferson said in another context: “Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them….” In this sense, ideas should be grounded in logic and reality before they are acted upon. They need to be workable.

    Levitt is being realistic and thinking about management goals and objectives, not what sounds nice. He’s not talking creativity as in writing poetry, painting murals, sculpting figures, mounting theatrical pieces, writing ads, etc. He’s talking creativity in the context of doing business. Whatever we do in this context, make sure it’s grounded in good business practice.

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