Sustaining Creativity and Innovation

 When I arrived at Southern University A&M, I looked forward to my new engineering journey. I had envisioned myself being like Scotty on Star Trek, providing Captain Kirk with life-saving innovative solutions for any galactic jam.  However, I was quickly awakened to the systematic and predictable sides of engineering. 

In fact, faculty advisors would frown upon us deviating from the engineering catalog to take business or non-traditional courses.  Sadly, it wasn’t until my senior year that I was allowed to use creativity. Yet, this reality was not out of the norm for most engineering schools. 

Today, U.S. engineers are fighting to maintain dominance as engineering tasks are now being outsourced to countries all over the world.  In fact, America is increasingly losing its pioneering edge because it lacks the human capital resources necessary for success.

Several key factors illuminate the downturn of America’s competitiveness across the globe: (1) several key agencies for U.S. scientific research and development will face a retirement crisis in the near future; (2) less than 6% of high school seniors are pursuing engineering degrees, down 36% from a decade ago; (3) the number of China’s undergraduate degrees in the hard sciences were 56% compared to 17% for the United States in 2000; and (4) in the next several years, China will likely produce six times the number of engineers as the United States. 

Currently, there is a national loss of between 40% and 60% of undergraduates from science, mathematics, and engineering majors into non-science disciplines. Traditionally, engineering schools have taught engineers to build their skills in a linear fashion over time. Sometimes organizations can be too rigid in their organizational design; they lose their mission.

Therefore, the consequences of overly emphasizing structure can be dangerous. Universities cannot afford the same old strategies. An environment needs to be created where these working parts can co-exist in an information era.

Today’s engineering organizations, including academic institutions, must instill students and employees with innovation and creativity for a competitive advantage.  Twenty-first century engineering and science departments must address the needs of students as they relate to globalization and future opportunities in an international market. In 2004, the United States graduated roughly 70,000 undergraduate engineers while other countries such as China (600,000) and India (350,000) are graduating far more engineers. 

Creativity can provide this economic weapon. Creativity is defined as the “generation of novel ideas that may be converted into opportunities.” Gareth Morgan, author of Imagination, argues that empowering people in organizations stimulates imagination and innovation.  James Gibson, John Ivancevich, James Donnelly, and Robert Konopaske,  authors of Organizations: Behavior, Structure, and Processes, suggest that organizations can foster creativity in the following ways: (a) managers can look for ways to absorb the risks of creative decisions made by their employees; (b) organizations can give people time off to work on a problem and allow them to think through them; (c) managers can give half-baked or unsophisticated ideas a chance; (d) organizations can encourage everyone to think of ways to solve problems; and (e) organizations can let employees see and interact with many managers and mentors. New strategies like these need to be utilized to turn today’s engineering organizations into global innovators.

Describe how traditional organizations such as engineering organizations can infuse creativity into their organization and how to sustain these activities.

 © 2011 by Daryl D. Green

22 thoughts on “Sustaining Creativity and Innovation

  1. “Without creativity, business stands still or loses ground to competitors. Today’s results needed to be delivered while simultaneously creating the future. To foster creativity: remove barriers and set up a culture that stimulates it. The creative person generates new ideas; the entrepreneur turns them into profits. Leaders are either personally creative or quick to exploit the ideas of creative people. Entrepreneurship is the process of marrying a good idea and a market need” is what Mitch McCrimmon, Ph. D. has to say about creativity and managment. Good leadership will inspire employees to be creative. They will feel as though they are trusted, cared about, and trusted enough to think outside of the box. Employees know their business and their contributions can be invaluable and often are able to create ways to increase production, maximize profits, invent new products, increase morale, save on waste, work better, have less injuries, and the list goes on, through creativity. Workers need leaders that are not afraid to show that the employees are important, that they matter, that their happiness is essential, and that they have opportunities to move up in the company. Creativity is at the crux of any good organization and it fosters growth. It is like the Hawthorne Effect; when the employees were paid attention to, the employees worked better. Scared rabbits don’t produce, and I think that profitable businesses of today are learning this and fostering creativity through happy workers like never before.

    McCrimmon, M., Fostering Creativity,

    • Heidi, great points. I particularly like the idea of providing today’s standard results while formulating tomorrows standards in a creative and innovative manner. In many respects the leader in this case really needs two be creative and facilitate and make easier how their employees innovate.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly, Dr. Green. Your insight about creativity and its usefulness in the science, engineering and mathematical fields is very future-oriented. I am surprised to hear that these fields don’t automatically build creativity into their programs! It is counter-intuitive that learning happens only in a linear manner. Aren’t these fields the ones that developed things like the uncertainty principle and chaos theory? Quantum Mechanics pretty much says to any thinking scientist: “Can you imagine this?”

    Without imagination, these folks would not be able to understand the complex concepts that they are required to deal with. Thanks for putting words to what I would consider a “slap to the forehead” bit of logic.

    Book suggestion: “Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration” by Keith Sawyer.

    • Hi Laura,

      Thanks for dropping by and lending your erudite mind!

      Yes, I think many organizations have lost the ability to create and to stretch themselves beyond limitations.

      Professor Green

    • Hi Laura Angilee Murray!
      It is so nice of you to join in with us. Personally, I miss having you in our class! Your contributions are always thought provoking!
      I relate to your surprise in learning that the engineering, math, and various science fields to not automatically have creativity as part of their “spring boards!”
      It is true that many in the business world are still scratching their heads about companies like Google or Apple where creativity and inspiration are built right into the design of the building, the culture, the work ethic, the organizational structure, etc.
      Organizations that are put on auto-pilot or that are too top heavy and controlling actually develop negativity in the workplace drying up creativity and fostering unethical behaviors.

  3. Blog post week 11

    Innovation is something that is near and dear to my heart.  I work for a media company, Scripps Networks, the parent company of HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel and others.  My current role, as a Solutions Engineer, is to come up with creative and innovative solutions to IT problems to fulfill out over all corporate goals.  The broadcast media business is going through a shift in how we presentour content to our consumers.  Consumers are becoming more technologically savvy and expect to have their media to consume when and where they want it.  They are no longer willing to wait until 9 pm on Wednesday nights or their favorite show.  They want to have that recipe they saw on Cooking Channel with instructions delivered to them quickly and with value added to their  request.  For media companies to survive they must innovate or die.

    One of my favorite quotes, and one I try to remember every day and instill on my coworkers is from a master storyteller and innovator, Walt Disney, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

  4. Creative drive is the backbone of successful business and for engineering firms this is no exception. In fact, Sam Davis maintains that thriving business is maintained by successful research and development. He describes a term used by Austrian economists known as “creative destruction” (Davis 8). This involves the destruction of an opposing company by the introduction of an innovative entry into the market. Creative destruction is by definition devastating for opposing companies and their employees, so it is important for companies to fund R & D and consider innovative projects. With technology increasing at an exponential rate, it is also important for companies to move quickly and effectively in the market.

    Davis, S. (2009, March). Engineering Innovation Requires Consistency and Creativity. Power Electronics Technology. p. 8.

    • Being innovative is also a key in leadership. To be a leader, one must posses the ability for seeing through an innovation cycle from concept creation to success. This is what distinguishes leaders from laggards. An innovative leader has the ability to imagine what could be. Innovative leaders have foresight and intuition. In any innovation process, a leader needs to set appropriate milestones, monitor the progress, liaison with the top management for resources, cooperate actively in the actual development, give advice when necessary, and offer constant encouragement.

      Bateman, T. S., & Snell, S. A. (2011). Management: Leading & Collaborating in a Competitive World (9, pp. 586-611). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

  5. I couldn’t agree more with the issues of institutions and colleges structuring so much ‘fluff’ and structure into their degree program. They allow for very little creativity throughout the learning process. Like the you, I wasn’t allowed to show really ANY creativity until my senior year at LMU. Our assignments were extremely structured as well as our classwork. When we were given the opportunity to show our creative and innovative side, we were encouraged to do it sparingly. I along with you believe that innovation is extremely important for success in the business world. Like you previously stated, China is graduating over 8 times the amount of engineering students. We must do better!

  6. I can tell everyone firsthand that the science programs are great, especially at LMU, there just seem to be fewer and fewer interested and/or less resources for prospective students to utilize in those areas. The main profession most choose with the science degrees around here is teaching. Few choose professions such as engineering or statistician work.

    We have become an instant gratification society, worried more about the end results rather than how we got the results to begin with. This has translated into management philosophies and recruitment processes to lack creativity. We have become an instant gratification society, worried more about the end results rather than how we got the results to begin with. I feel employers should allow for more creative thinking and decision making, decentralized decision making in particular. While a company must set limits, Gamble and Thompson state, “The objective is to put adequate decision-making authority in the hands of the people closest to and most familiar with the situation and train them to weigh all the factors and exercise good judgement” (p. 219).

    Gamble, J. E., & Thompson, A. A. (2011). Essentials of strategic management: The quest for competitive advantage. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

    • The engineering shortage present similar characteristics to the shortage of nurses that our nation faced a few years back. Since then the shortage of nurses has greatly decreased. In my own opinion two significant reasons why the shortages have decreased is because the pay is good and a qualified nurse was almost guaranteed work due to the shortage. I believe the engineering field will do the same thing. As Mr. Campbell stated we have the resources in place to produce engineers. As the demand for engineers increases so will the pay. I believe these two things will help out nations need for more engineers.

  7. Innovation and creativity are key elements to the development and growth of technology. Since the beginning of time, human beings have been creative thinkers. Originally, creative thinking was necessary to survive in a hostile world. Now, however, the hostility that managers face is in the competitive battle ground of the global market. Fortunately, the desire to be innovators has allowed business leaders to sharpen their company’s technological competitiveness in order to combat the revolution in the global economy.

    Product innovation can be generally broken down into four categories. The first is called incremental innovation. This refers to those efforts directed towards extending existing product concepts and is essential for strengthening the competitiveness of products. This form of innovation takes place continuously in any organization. Incremental innovation has the advantage of low risk and a high degree of certainty.

    Technical innovation is the second sub-category of product innovation. This type of innovation contributes less towards market creation. Instead, technical innovation leads to an entirely new product based on developments in respect to existing technology.

    Next is called the product application innovation. In this form of innovation the development of products are guided by the customers input. Products like the I-Phone are examples of this form of innovation.

    Product radical innovation is the finial type of sub category in product innovation. Radical innovation involves creation of both the technology and market for the product. It involves the conception and formation of new product concepts, convincing world markets, and creation of new business concepts. Product radical innovation is very high-risk and involves long term research and development efforts.

    Innovation in technology can be either revolutionary or evolutionary. It is said to be evolutionary when the progress is continuous, there are significant changes in a short period of time, and the efforts required towards technical innovation are considerable.

    In contrast, revolutionary innovation is innovation where the technological progress is discontinuous. These generally remain as inventions or discoveries until their potential is unsheathed. These occur quite rarely, roughly once in fifty to hundred years, and these can completely change the foundation or structure of industry and society.

    Bateman, T. S., & Snell, S. A. (2011). Management: Leading & Collaborating in a Competitive World (9, pp. 586-611). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

  8. I have a degree in Engineering Technology with a minor in Technology Education. Some universities refer to the degree of Engineering Technology as an Industrial Engineering degree. The program that I attended was at East Tennessee State University in the 1990’s. At that time it was all about creativity and innovation. Each year we would compete against other universities in engineer competitions to develop team work and see how others in the field would work to solve the same problem or challenge.

    The reason why I choose a degree in engineering was two-fold. First is my personal back ground, as a child I was always very curious about how things were put together and how things worked. I often irritated my brothers and my father when I would take apart their power tools to see what was inside. The second was due to the mentality of my generation which was to diversify yourself and be as flexible, and trained for as many career opportunities as possible. It was not about being specialized in one area but have the training that would get your foot in the door and then the wiliness to lean and advance from there.

    Perhaps another issue is that engineering is perceived as a specialized field and given the current economic situation the field of study is very unappealing to the Z generation. Also the public educational system that is so burden with government regulations that all students meet the core requirements, that they do not have time to encourage students to pursue careers in engineering, or even vocational trades. And again maybe it is just that, encouragement at all levels for students even in graduate programs to think outside of the box and be creative and not chastised for finding a different solution to problem then the status quo.

  9. I started my college career trying to get an engineering degree, because I wanted to be an engineer for many years before I started. I decided to pursue a different degree before classes even started for many reasons, but mainly because I didn’t like the course list that they were wanting me to stick too. Like you, they wouldn’t allow me to be creative and take other courses that interested me, and I had some plans to take some different courses that deviated from my major. This immediately through me off the engineer path, and I decided to pursue business, because I could take a wide array of electives. I wasn’t particularly looking at the future when I made this decision. It was geared more to what was convenient and interested me the most.

  10. Harden Valley Academy currently has four “colleges” where students are divided into groups during the eighth grade; BLPA (business, law, public affairs, and government), Health sciences, Liberal arts, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Each college has their own English, math, etc. to fulfill the requirement. Although it is a well-respected academy, I wonder about those in the STEM, are they receiving any liberal arts? Enough for them to enjoy culture, art, and allow for creativity? It is designed to help them get ahead when they go to college, but is something left out? My son, who is definitely a computer genius, also appreciates a fine cup of tea, interesting art, different blends of music, and architecture. I feel that each can help him in his chosen career later on, a way to inspire him for additional ideas. As far as creativity in engineering, that is how we progress! Without creativity we would not have the things that we have, the structures, the processes, the techniques.

    • Hi Angela,

      Harden Valley Academy is a great school. I do agree. We can get lost with STEM initiatives. We need to allow students (and adults) to play games and do other nonlinear activities to stimulate creativity.

      Professor Green

  11. “Innovation is the specific tool of entrepreneurs, the means by which they exploit change as an opportunity for a different business or a different service. It is capable of being presented as a discipline, capable of being learned, capable of being practiced. Entrepreneurs need to search purposefully for the sources of innovation, the changes and their symptoms that indicate opportunities for successful innovation. And they need to know and to apply the principles of successful innovation.” is what the writer, professor and Management Consultant Peter Drucker has to say about creativity and innovation. It seems easy to say we want to innovate, but it feels like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, you are leaving all you know behind for a visit to Chaos. Confronted by all the mystery and disorder that precedes innovation, our challenge as leaders is to help people make meaning of the journey. To innovate is to intentionally let go of the “way things are and welcome the way they could be. I think breakdown is the first step toward innovation, an intentional release of established habits of thought, expectations, assumptions, and beliefs in order to embrace “not knowing. “Innovation involves calculated risk taking and requires courage, but “business as usual” no longer works. (Pag. 55)

    Daft, R.L. (2011) The Leadership Experience (5th) Mason Ohio, 45040, South-Western Cengage Learning.

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