During a recent flight, I happened to sit by a senior member of the management team at a large hi-tech company. Upon learning about the creative dimensions of my activity, which give the beginning of the company's name (CrEIRe), this person asked for my opinion about ways in which mature hi-tech companies could re-ignite the creative urge of their staff.
I observed that large companies tend to be about execution, scale and hierarchy, and not about creativity. Most of a company's creativity is acquired at the time of each individual hire decision; the rest can only be stimulated. I, for one, tend to think creatively when in conversations that push the limits of common thinking/knowledge, or in situations without apparent solutions. I also try to stimulate my creativity by frequenting many a venue of human expression, however related or not to the business at hand. Such venues could take me to anything/anywhere, from a report on the health of the economy to a financial model, from the wisdom of the classics to observations about how my child appropriates the world round her, from an academic text to some museum. And the list could go on. Yet, creativity cannot be summoned, it just happens should the conditions be in place.
To return to creativity in the workplace, I am not even sure most companies, once they become large, can do too much about creativity. They can, and seem to always, buy some startup that comes their way to fill whatever creative gaps in their offerings. They can, yet seldom, improve on the working conditions of their staff. Indeed, in how many a large hi-tech company have you seen working conditions that were conducive to creativity? Does one feel creative in one of those too many cubicles, claustrophobic and grey, air-conditioned and fluorescent-lit into oblivion from the outside world, at companies like Cisco, Dell or CA? Unless, of course, one expects the upper ranks (VPs and above) to shoulder the burden of creativity at such places. From this perspective, Microsoft does a little better, and Novell and Google may well top the list--the latter two bearing the Eric Schmidt imprimatur.
So, I had to tell this person that improving working conditions and creatively employing creative people could help improve the creative output of large hi-techs.