Why conviction drives innovation more than creativity

October 17, 2011: 2:22 PM ET

In business circles, "creativity" has become a buzzword to describe a desired trait among employees. But to innovate, conviction is more important.

By Doreen Lorenzo, president, frog

Doreen LorenzoFORTUNE -- In business circles, "creativity" has become a buzzword to describe a desired trait among employees. It's widely believed that having creative thinkers on staff will boost overall team levels of innovation. Yes, creativity can lead to a surplus of original ideas. But when it comes time to sell those concepts internally, and then later take those ideas to market, creativity is not enough. More important is conviction.

Look at the most-admired business leaders today. They tend to resist compromises, even when faced with widespread skepticism or even complaints from customers. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's young founder, is known for the exactness of his vision, which drives each design or software tweak of the social networking software that he created, despite the now-requisite uproar each change incites among Facebook's 750 million-plus users (whose own convictions, it should be noted, help drive subsequent iterations and privacy policies of Facebook).

Consider how Amazon (AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos asked the graduating class at Princeton University during his 2010 commencement speech there, "Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?" A powerful alternative to reading a corny list of tips for success to an eager crowd hoping to follow in his footsteps, his tough question offered a glimpse into his own style of innovation, and what drove him to build Amazon from a start-up online bookseller to a retail juggernaut to a serious challenger to Apple's (AAPL) top-selling iPad hardware and its iTunes service.

But it's not just company founders and CEOs or Ivy League grads that can benefit from having a strong sense of conviction. New data suggest that when employees pursue work that they feel strongly about, and can move their ideas forward within their organization, they are more enthusiastic and productive. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and her colleague Steven Kramer collected 12,000 electronic diary entries from 238 executives in seven different organizations. They analyzed what motivated these everyday individuals, who described their daily psychological well-being at work. Amabile and Kramer saw a trend emerge: "simply making progress in meaningful work" [italics mine] was key for these workers to feel engaged, Amabile and Framer wrote in a New York Times opinion essay in September. What Amabile's research shows is that conviction is important. Work that appeals to employees' firmly held beliefs, which has personal meaning to workers, is what drives them.

Conviction is the powerful force that Google (GOOG) channels with its 20% policy, which requires Googlers to devote one-fifth of their time in the office pursuing a project that they are personally interested in and therefore passionate about. This policy has famously resulted in products such as Gmail and Google Earth's flight simulator software. But beyond the hype surrounding Google's management style and how it leads to inventive thinking, it's helpful to see how individual Googlers themselves think of this concept, as evident on their blogs and in their own words. Dave Burke, an engineering director who works on Google's Android phone operating system, described the policy in a Google blog post earlier this year as "my license to innovate." Just working at a place like Google, with its free food, vast resources, ambitious managers and talented co-workers might not be enough to spark the desired innovation. A culture where personal passions matter enough to fuel a corporate policy, more than the policy itself, is the management strategy to emulate.

Organizations of all sizes can encourage everyone, from C-level leaders to junior hires, to pursue their convictions. And they don't have to be of the cheerleading variety. In fact, it can be helpful on many levels for managers to pay attention to employees' passionate responses to projects, products, or services that are not working. At frog, for example, a lot of people were complaining about an internal tool we used for performance reviews -- how cumbersome the software was, how time-consuming the process was to enter text. (Sound familiar?) So, managers paid attention to this heated chatter and embraced it. Clearly, if so many people had such strong opinions about this tool, perhaps something was wrong with it. That's when I suggested that if our employees felt that it wasn't the right tool for us, why not propose an improvement? One designer stepped up to the challenge, and created an alternative to the performance review software in question.

The exercise showed our teams that we are the kind of company that listens to employees, pays attention to the intensity of their interests, and is not afraid to take risks by channeling that intensity. So what we've learned at frog is that an employee-first management policy is about creating a culture that offers the opportunity for everyone to voice their opinions all the way to senior executives, at town-hall-style meetings in person, or on company-wide quarterly calls. This way we can also identify employees who have something to say, who might be able to offer fresh ways to improve how we do business, and whose opinions are so formed that they are not afraid to share them in a company-wide arena.

Conviction-driven thinkers on all levels of an organization, from the C-suite to executive assistants, want to share their specific visions more than they seek fame or power. They don't just think they have a good idea, but they believe passionately that their concept is worth making real. The beauty of these types of thinkers (and doers) is that they can explain why they want to develop the products they're developing, and why they want to launch initiatives that they're launching—both internally and to the world. Even when their ideas might not be the most original (remember, the Kindle was not the first e-reader; the iPod was not the first MP3 player; Google was not the first search engine; Facebook was not the first social network), their passion and their vision on how to improve the world or even the everyday quality of life in your company's workspace are likely focused. They are likely engaged. As a result, they can be very persuasive. Such a mixture of focus, engagement, and persuasion, more than creativity alone, is what brings ideas to market, and also to the right audiences at the right time.

Doreen Lorenzo (@doreenl) is the president of global innovation firm frog and an executive vice president and general manager of the Aricent Group, frog's parent company. Doreen drives frog's company strategy and oversees its worldwide operations. During her 14 years with the company, she has been instrumental in re-structuring the company, taking it from a traditional design boutique to becoming one of the world's foremost global innovation firms, securing broad-based arrangements with an array of Fortune 500 clients. She serves as a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, 2011-2012.

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