Creativity Expert and Bestselling Author Sir Ken Robinson Explains Why Innovation is a Top Priority for Forward-Thinking Credit Unions

THINK: With everything credit union leaders have on their minds right now, why should creativity take priority?

ROBINSON: There are lots of reasons, but the primary reason is that the world is changing so quickly these days. There are forces of change that are accelerating beyond anything we’ve known before, and the consequence is that it’s virtually impossible to look into the future with any great certainty. Given the rate of change and the unpredictability of it, it’s absolutely a bottom line issue for organizations to develop the powers of innovation, flexibility and resilience that they all depend upon.

THINK: It seems like this is happening at the exact moment when our collective creativity is flagging. Is this just a perception, or are we facing a kind of creativity crisis?

ROBINSON: I don’t think that people are inherently less capable of being creative. But there are certainly social constraints of various sorts at play, particularly in education. What’s happened in the past 15 years, as competition has increased internationally, is that there’s been a great push toward conformity and standardized testing.

You see it in business as well, where there’s an emphasis on very short-term accountability, an aversion to risk-taking and a tendency for accountability pressures to come from the top down, which tends to discourage people from believing that they can think independently or have original ideas or take risks within their commercial organizations.

The companies that do innovate, and there are many of them, understand that you have to create a culture where people will give their ideas freely to the benefit of the organization. It isn’t that being creative means knocking the furniture over and running wild. It’s often a very controlled process for developing new ideas for services, new ideas for products, maybe new ways of doing things. A small systems change in a company may have an enormous benefit to the whole organization.

THINK: Is it a question of leadership?

ROBINSON: It’s very hard for an organization to be creative and innovative if the senior leadership of the organization doesn’t understand what’s involved and doesn’t support it. But I’d also say that it’s not the job of a CEO to have all the great creative ideas. A really creative organization unleashes creative thinking among everybody – the whole organization. The job of a CEO is to create a culture where everybody has great ideas.

THINK: There’s an exclusivity to the term “creative” that – at the risk of being redundant — leaves a lot of people feeling excluded. Why do so few people label themselves as creative?

ROBINSON: A lot of people have misconceptions about creativity. They think it’s all about being artistic or writing or playing the piano. I don’t for a minute mean to say that those things are not creative, because they can be. But you can be creative at almost anything at all.

THINK: But if creativity isn’t about being artistic, how do we define it?

ROBINSON: I define creativity in a very particular way. I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. And companies are creative about very different things. If you look at Apple, they’ve been tremendously innovative in creating new products. Actually, not only products, but that’s what they’re famous for. Other companies haven’t developed any new products at all to speak of. You think of a company like Wal-Mart, for example, that’s been tremendously innovative in things like supply chain management. Other service companies aren’t in the product business: They’re about developing new forms of customer relationships and support.

THINK: Deciding to be more creative is one thing: Becoming more creative is another. Is there something readers can do today to put themselves in a better position to think creatively?

ROBINSON: We all get stuck very quickly into regular algorithms of behavior; it’s easy for our minds to start to run on rails.

One way to shake it up is to look at your own habits. If you always come to work a certain way, go a different way. If there are people in the organization you routinely don’t talk to, go and talk to them. If there are people you spend all your time with, spend it with somebody else for a while and try to get some different perspectives. If there are things you’ve wanted to do in your own life that you’ve never tried, well, why don’t you try them?

The root of creativity is imagination and imagination is the power to see alternatives and to bring things to mind that you might not have experienced before. It begins, for leaders, with paying attention to their own imagination and their own creative possibilities.