Unlocking Creativity by Michael A. Roberto

The Blurb On The Back:

Creativity is an elusive but essential component of innovation and success in competitive, changing markets.  The old way of thinking had it that creativity was a kind of mystical property possessed only by certain innately talented people.  If an organisation wasn’t innovative enough, its leaders simply needed to find and hire those rare creative people.  The past few decades of constant disruption by newcomers has roundly proven this theory false, even if organisational leaders don’t recognise it yet.  Years of trying to recruit and retain creative workforce’s just hasn’t helped the established players keep up.

If hiring creativity isn’t helping, it means that organisations have all the creativity they need but aren’t harnessing it properly.  What’s going wrong?  Some people point to the pressure to keep shareholders happy and to other external pressures, claiming that market forces prevent them from giving creativity the space to develop.  But the supersonic rise of companies like Netflix and Amazon show that market forces aren’t stopping the people who really know how to innovate.  In Unlocking Creativity Michael A. Roberto draws on years of investigation to reveal the true nature of the problem: enterprise-wide mindsets that stifle creativity on a daily basis.

Every organisation is full of creative minds just waiting for an opportunity to shine.  Unfortunately, deeply entrenched organisational cultures and ways of thinking frustrate people when they try to present original ideas.  Without knowing it, we may be falling victim to one of the six mindsets that prevent talented people from experimenting, discovering, innovating and helping the organisation flourish.

Unlocking Creativity presents the six mindsets that block creativity, bringing them to life through colourful examples and abundant research evidence, to help leaders recognise the habits that might be preventing creativity from taking flight.  With illustrations taken from far and wide – academic research, corporate case studies, hit TV shows, and rock and roll legends all make eye-opening appearances in the pages of this book – Michael Roberto clears the fog around creativity and equips leaders with the insight they need to shift to supportive mindsets and cultures where creativity can thrive. 

You can order Unlocking Creativity by Michael A. Roberto from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Michael A. Roberto is Director of the Center for Program Innovation at Bryant University.  In this thought-provoking book that will appeal to anyone who has worked at a large organisation, he sets out the 6 organisational mindsets that can block creativity within the workplace and offers ways of countering them, drawing on numerous business, technological and creative case studies and social psychology experiments to help make his case.

Roberto breaks down the 6 mindsets that prevent creativity as follows:

  • The Linear Mindset, which treats creativity as a step-by-step process that can be achieved through following a set procedure;
  • The Benchmarking Mindset, under which businesses fixate on their competitors and try to plug the gaps between them rather than focusing on strategies that can distinguish and differentiate them further;
  • The Prediction Mindset, which sees businesses become too focused on trying to predict the future;
  • The Structural Mindset, which causes businesses to focus on changes in organisational structure as a way of improving creativity and performance (something that particularly resonated with me from my own experience in the work place);
  • The Focus Mindset, under which businesses require workers to focus intensively on a problem, sometimes in isolated bunkers, rather than viewing the creative process as something that’s more fluid and dynamic; and
  • The Naysayer Mindset, which sees ideas critiqued too early, too heavily and too often, killing off potential creative solutions before they can emerge.

Each chapter then takes a mindset, giving examples of why it isn’t appropriate and strategies for how to tackle it.  Some of the case studies are fascinating (I particularly enjoyed the media related ones, such as how media companies become fixated on replicating successful TV show types made by their competitors) and some I found a little forced (e.g. Leonardo da Vinci is offered up in the chapter on The Linear Mindset as an example of someone who didn’t pursue his activities in a linear fashion, which helped make him so creative (which is true but as Roberto also points out, da Vinci was also known for over-promising and under-delivering).

The chapters on The Structural Mindset and The Naysayer Mindset particularly resonated with me as I’ve seen them at play within large companies I’ve worked for and, I should admit that I am also prone to naysaying at times so Roberto’s suggestions for how to improve were genuinely helpful. 

The main weakness of the book is that although I don’t disagree with Roberto’s conclusions, a business needs to be willing to both identify its own problems when it comes to creativity and then implement the results.  He touches on the main issue stopping companies doing this when he talks about how the need to see profits against (often unrealistic) targets can cause some organisations to choke off potentially successful ideas before they bed in but it’s one thing to say that it’s a bad idea but given how endemic the problem of unrealistic targets and the need to demonstrate profits to make a return to (often institutional) shareholders means that you see companies get trapped in a loop that prevents them from installing necessary changes.  As a result, while he uses large multinational, often quoted companies in his case studies, I couldn’t help but think that the changes in behaviour he identifies here would best be heard and implemented in smaller companies where the management is closer to the on-the-ground employees and can therefore be more responsive and I would have liked to have seen some case studies look at that rather than the recognisable names.

Saying that, I did find this a useful and informative book and Roberto writes fluidly, in an accessible style while also packing in a lot of business and social/management psychology research to back up his arguments and conclusions.  If you’re interested in the topic, I’d therefore suggest checking out this book and I would definitely look to read Roberto’s other work.   

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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