Sir Ken says the standard education system stigmatizes creativity, and kills original ideas. Is the same thing happening at corporations?

By Giovanna Fabiano

There is usually a complicated web of reasons cited when companies fold, but ultimately, their inability to thrive in a changing world often comes down to one simple flaw: a lack of imagination.

That’s what Sir Ken Robinson believes is the downfall of our public education system, and the same institutional problems are plaguing many corporations, he says.

“If you really want a culture of innovation, you have to lead people differently, value them differently, and encourage them differently.” – Sir Ken Robinson

“If you really want a culture of innovation, you have to lead people differently, value them differently, and encourage them differently.” – Sir Ken Robinson

Robinson, a world-renowned speaker and advisor on education and the arts, is best known for his famous 2006 speech — the most watched TED talk of all time —which makes a compelling case for creating an education system that nurtures creativity.

As the keynote speaker at Xerox’s simple@work conference, Robinson said a similar culture of stifling creativity breeds an innovation crisis at some of the world’s largest companies.

He recently sat down with Real Business to share some thoughts about the importance of encouraging original ideas and rejecting a pack mentality among employees.

In your famous TED talks, you make the case that the standard education system stigmatizes creativity, and in turn, is killing original ideas. Is the same thing happening at corporations?

I think it’s not so much that people stigmatize creativity as they stifle it unwittingly. Politicians talk about how important it is to promote innovation, but they encourage practices that inhibit creativity and sometimes, not necessarily consciously, do stifle it. One reason is there are lots of misconceptions about how creativity works.  Another is they don’t appreciate how to encourage creative activities.

In the education system, there’s a need to raise standards but the way they do it is through this culture of standardized testing, which discourages creative thinking. People think creativity is the opposite of discipline and they’re wrong.

There needs to be a better understanding of why creativity is so important, what it is, and the conditions under which it can be encouraged and accepted.

So, why is creativity critical to a company’s success?

Creativity isn’t some luxurious indulgence that we can only afford in good times. And it’s not a special function of an organization that should be hived away into a separate department. It’s what makes human life different from the rest of the earth. We’re born with immense natural powers of imagination and creativity, much more so than other species. Music, science, technology, philosophy, architecture … we live in this virtual world of ideas and theories, of values and great breakthroughs of human culture. All companies start that way too; they start with an idea.

Many companies are suffering financially because they’ve failed to keep up with modern technology, which is constantly evolving, and you’ve used Kodak as an example. Why do you think they failed to adapt?

In order to keep ahead of what’s going on, companies need to have a systematic process of innovation. Many organizations get stuck in their established ways of doing things.

Kodak invented home photography. The company started with an idea. Eastman (Kodak) thought, “we could domesticate this process.” The Brownie camera was as much of a sensation in its day as the iPad is in ours. But Kodak has recently been in bankruptcy proceedings. And it’s not because people have stopped taking photographs. It’s because Kodak didn’t keep up with cultural and technological changes and didn’t adapt quickly enough to them. They said, “We’re a film company. Our fortune is in from selling film.” They persuaded themselves that digital wasn’t the right market, and then their lunch was stolen by this little company called Instagram, among others. Ultimately, it was a failure of imagination.

How can companies turn around that culture? Does it begin with education?

The reason I make the connection with education is because school is where most people should develop their talents but  many kids are often demoralized by it. Too often, organizations hire people on the basis of their academic profiles. But highly qualified graduates often struggle to think creatively because they’ve been trained by their education to be compliant. In companies, it’s strategically imperative to recognize that the vitality of the organization depends upon the ideas of the people who work there.  The best technologies on their own won’t generate a culture of creativity and innovation. These are just tools that we use.

Developing a culture of innovation means knowing the conditions in which ideas can flourish. If you just want efficiency — if you want to make thousands of motor cars or garments — you may develop a command and control mentality, but in doing that you may be missing out on real opportunities for innovation. If you really want a culture of innovation, you have to lead people differently, value them differently, and encourage them differently.

Videos of simple@work keynote speeches by Sir Ken and other top industry experts from around the world, are now available on Xerox Corporation’s Virtual Events website. Registration is required.

This article was originally published in Real Business, a website from Xerox that provides ideas and information for decision makers in business and government.