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Creative bias: A threat to corporate innovation

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Creative types aren't seen as potential leaders in large corporations. That's why there's an innovation deficit in Corporate America.

As Apple moves forward without Steve Jobs one of the bigger challenges it will face is how to manage the creative process.

The research on how large corporations react to creativity isn't promising. Jennifer Mueller, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, has been researching creative bias. Creative bias can be summarized this way:

  • Everyone says they want creativity, but generally they fear it.
  • Creativity is often seen to lead to uncertainty. It's more certain to create incremental improvements over delivering something entirely new.
  • Creative people are often seen as quirky, unfocused and non-conformist. As a result, when a person voices creative ideas she isn't seen as a leader.
  • Corporations squelch creativity and it's difficult to move big ideas through the pipeline.

To combat this creative malaise---which is found at every large company---Apple has Apple University, an internal training program designed to teach employees how to be creative and push innovation forward. In other words, Apple is trying to teach the rank-and-file to think a bit like Jobs.

"If you have a charismatic leader creativity matches the CEO stereotypes," said Mueller. "Anything out of Jobs mouth was seen as evidence that he was a visionary. The average person through the ranks may not have been awarded for being creative. The question I have is whether a person coming up through a large organization has the chops to continue to be creative."

Also see: Steve Jobs: Immortal by designSteve Jobs: seven ways he taught us to 'think different'ZDNet: Replicating Steve: Can Apple recreate Jobs' intangibles?

Mueller also added that "corporate culture is designed to squash creativity." Jobs was able to create big ideas and then garner market acceptance.

So what's the fix? Mueller said the first step toward curing creative bias is to recognize it exists. Once executives realize that creativity and innovation can be uncomfortable they can work through processes to compensate for it. "It's a complex push and pull," said Mueller. "The new research is grim, but it's important that organizations figure out creative bias."

Mueller's research is worth a read. You may recognize a company near you in these studies.

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Larry Dignan

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan is editor-in-chief of SmartPlanet and ZDNet. He is also editorial director of TechRepublic. Previously, he was an editor at eWeek, Baseline and CNET News. He has written for WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, New York Times and Financial Planning. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Delaware. He is based in New York but resides in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure