What can companies learn from MacGyver? Creativity!

What is creativity?

When you see the rusty handlebars and the seat of an old bicycle – what do you see?

A rusty handlebar and an old bicycle seat.

When Picasso stumbled over it in 1942, he saw something else:

“Guess how I made the bull’s head? One day, in a pile of jumbled objects, I found an old bicycle seat right next to a rusty handlebar. In a flash, they came together in my head. The Bull’s Head idea came to me before I had a chance to think. All I did was weld them together…”

In his head, he connected the old parts of a bicycle and made it into the head of a bull. He saw something that hardly anyone would have seen. He connected (literally) the parts and left us a work of art. That’s creativity: connecting the disconnected.

But he also said, “If you only saw the bull’s head and not the bike seat and handlebars that make it up, the sculpture would lose some of its impact.” We can still see the origin – the old context, so to speak – of his creation. But although we can still see the parts (the old), Picasso allows a new image to emerge in our minds.

Here is the attempt to describe creativity:

Creativity is the ability to connect the disconnected

A creative destruction and emergence of meaning that changes the way we see things.

But creativity is not the same as art. Although artists need their creativity to create effective works and make us see things we have not seen before, creativity is not the result (meaning it is not the artwork), but a process. Anyone can learn this process of creative thinking.

Another example:

MacGyver is the character of a 90’s tv series and the Swiss-knife type of hero. What made him famous? Whenever he got into trouble, he would take some tools, trash, or chemicals, build a helicopter out of them, or blast his way out.

MacGyver is not an artist, but he is creative.

He connects the disconnected.

Why creativity is important for organizations

For decades, organizations have established many rules, defined processes, and were managed top down to ensure that everyone follows the rules and processes as well. This was great. It created stability and helped manage complexity. It made things simple.

But it is precisely this organizational behavior that is increasingly getting companies into trouble. Today, companies struggle to innovate on many fronts: new services, products, business models – and they fail. Not just because of external fixed structures in the form of rules and processes, but because of the rigidity of their linear mental processes. So where are new ideas supposed to come from?

Companies lack the ability to be creative.

An ability, that is always connected to the willingness to face risk and uncertainty.

Back in 2010, IBM asked 1,500 CEOs about the most important leadership quality (over the next 5 years): “…they identify ‘creativity’ as the most important leadership competency for companies seeking a path through this complexity.”

In the survey, IBM singled out complexity as the biggest challenge facing businesses. Creativity, in turn, is the most expected skill for leaders to be able to manage that complexity: finding new solutions to problems, creating new services and products, and adapting quickly to a changing environment.

This is also confirmed by the World Economic Forum, which ranks creativity 4th in its “Future of Jobs Report 2020” (after Analytical Thinking and Innovation, Active Learning and Learning Strategies, Complex Problem Solving).

Why do so many companies still fail to be innovative, even though it has been advocated for years, that creativity is an essential skill for business development?

What prevents companies from being creative

Lacking ability to allow diversity

If you try to have problems solved by the same people over and over again, you will always get the same solutions. Only when completely new perspectives, experiences or cultural backgrounds are added, is there a chance to create something completely new.

Companies are usually still organized in departments or silos. Here, the same people have been sitting together for years, looking for solutions to big or everyday problems. But in silos and without the creative infusion from outside, creativity no longer emerges.

Lacking ability to think divergently

If creativity is the act of connecting previously disconnected things, then there are an infinite number of possible connections (new ideas). How do we then think in the most effective way?

There are two processes involved in great idea generation:

  1. Divergent thinking: Allows for new connections, crazy ideas, and collects suggestions without evaluating. Divergent thinking means pushing the boundaries of thinking first. That means allowing mechanical engineers to learn from and work with software developers. To allow software developers to learn from and work with biologists. To allow managers to learn from and work with psychologists or spiritual teachers. The goal is to broaden one’s thinking spectrum to discover something that has not been thought before. To link thoughts that have not been linked before.
  2. Convergent thinking: Sorts ideas by benefits, effort to implement, risk, etc. Convergent thinking means prioritizing from the multitude of ideas that arose from divergent thinking and select those that are most promising, meaning the ones that create the most value (for customers, users, society or the environment). Energy and resources for execution are focused on the ideas that remain after convergent thinking took place.
    Companies have learned to minimize risk. They have learned ‘how to do things around here’. Behaviors are prescribed, patterns for decisions developed, cost-benefit comparisons implemented, ROI considered. Important decisions are reserved for selected executives and ideas are judged by the status of who had them.

Companies are good at convergent thinking. But they have forgotten to be open, to cross borders (mentally), to poach in foreign territories, to follow intuition, to approach a problem in an interdisciplinary way and also to involve the crazy, the unfamiliar, the naive. The diversity described above in divergent thinking encourages the creative process. This is what out of the box thinking really is.

Lacking ability to fail skilfully

In the studio, there are dozens of empty, stretched canvases. The painter begins working on one canvas, mixes colors and applies them, moves to the next canvas, mixes again, applies, returns to the first, smudges color, then begins the third canvas. “How many canvases does it take to create a good painting?” – “Sometimes only 20, sometimes more.”

Nineteen canvases go in the trash; one will hang in the gallery later. Visitors see only this one; all the others are known only to the artist.

To create art, the artist must accept failure.

Companies however want to avoid failure.

They have developed rules and policies to prevent mistakes. Risk minimization has become part of their DNA. But creative processes mean failing many times to create a successful work (product, service, business model).

Compared to individual artists, entire companies cannot afford to fail.

But there are things they can do to prevent such failure, even though they may seem scary (different to the status quo) in the first place.

Key capabilities of creative companies

To get creative processes going, companies need to develop the following capabilities:

Encourage diversity

A big step toward new innovations is to expand the circle of solution seekers. Integrate other departments, people of different hierarchical levels, mix genders, ages or ethnicities, add customers, users or partners. Make your culture more diverse on purpose. Connecting the disconnected succeeds in dialogic processes and with the help of creative structures (e.g. Liberating Structures).

The task of leaders becomes to allow diversity, to integrate perspectives even if they contradict their own. When these perspectives network, develop their own creative power, reinforce each other – then new ideas emerge. As in an alchemical process, the new suddenly emerges – often unexpectedly.

Learning to think divergently

The meeting lasts an hour, 55 minutes have already been spent discussing the problem from all sides. Shortly before the end comes the question, “And what do we do now?” The first idea is now accepted, a responsible person is appointed and the next meeting is agreed upon. Here, the opportunity to consciously enter into a divergent, creative process has been missed. That is, to collect not just one, but 10 or 20 ideas – and only then decide.

Companies become more creative when they consciously create divergence instead of skipping this step – due to time constraints or habitual behavior. The most important question is therefore: “Do we have enough ideas?”. Managers become facilitators for creative processes: it is not the manager who decides, but the best idea. But that must first be found in a collective divergent process and the willingness of the executive team to let go of hierarchical idea dominance.

Plan for failure

If many ideas have been generated, then a company can also try out and learn many things. However, rules and guidelines often destroy this learning process. The development of an innovation is planned through, a project team including a plan is created, the management needs an estimation of costs and sales opportunities, etc.

Planning for failure means taking a path of small steps. Many experiments, short intervals, testing, learning, improving, continuing – or giving up the experiment. This way you protect your resources, but keep the creative fire burning. This doesn’t just apply to software development in an agile SCRUM process, but can be extended to all areas. Leaders are given the role of creating spaces and resources for experimentation, granting autonomy and accepting early failure.

The creative decade

As we enter a new decade, I venture a prediction: companies in their 20s need creativity. The challenges are immense: the rapid development of technological innovations, economic and political instability, climate crisis, and a growing awareness of social and environmental sustainability – all this creates a complex and dynamic environment with great opportunities and risks.

Creativity is becoming a key competence. Not only for companies, but also for global society. If we accept our responsibility, we need ideas.

We need to become creative.


IBM CEO study 2010

The Future of Jobs Report 2020