Overemphasising Creativity Will Hurt Your Business

Career

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jotham.lim

I believe that ideas are often overrated, and undeserving of the pedestal companies place them upon.

  • A person’s creativity is evaluated during recruitment, especially for product development and marketing positions.
  • CEOs cycle through numerous headcounts, hoping to find talents that are equally creative as they are competent.
  • Venture capitalists and angel investors often lust after the new big idea for a big investment payout.

Some company leaders are so fixated on their own ideas that they believe creativity is scarce within the workplace.

🪫 The Exhausted Vigor of Innovative Ideas

In a past job interview, I met a marketing veteran in his mid-50s who lamented the exhausted vigour of innovative ideas within the industry. “Stale and generic” is what he calls marketers today.

Surely, the younger generation is much more in tune with current market trends than someone nearing retirement. I argued that younger employees are generally creative and are happy to contribute ideas. They need clear processes and a culture of upskilling and experimentation to produce stellar results consistently.

Unfortunately, much of today’s workplace creativity is stifled by absurd approval processes and editorial censorship imposed by higher-ups who have no business doing so.

“Jotham, what you’ve mentioned about systems, experimentation, and upskilling is precisely what I meant! This is also a form of creativity that the industry needs!”

Well, that’s a… convenient definition. It sounds like shifting accountability towards individual talents when implementing such policies falls under the management’s prerogative. Safe to say, I didn’t want to take the job.

🪜 The Hierarchy of Ideas in the Workplace

In the workplace, the gravity of your ideas increases exponentially the higher you are on the corporate totem pole. A CEO’s ideas outweigh those of an employee, regardless of how many brainstorming sessions or idea solicitation occurs.

Naturally, introverts, who are generally more deliberate and thoughtful about their ideas, tend to keep their opinions to themselves.

Criticising an idea can be seen as an attack on its creator. When a brainstorming meeting falls silent, it’s rarely because the employees lack imagination; the company hasn’t yet established a safe space for ideas to flow freely.

People risk being ridiculed, shot down, or denied when expressing genuine opinions. Being silent is a form of self-preservation and pacifism. Would you have dared oppose your VIP client’s “creative idea” when they have invested so much thought into it?

Differentiating between a good and bad idea takes time and effort. It’s even harder to evaluate ideas within a brief conversation, yet they can command so much faith within that same period.

Ideas also lack legitimacy unless they materialise in a tangible form, which is why patents need to be well-documented and intensely examined. The formlessness of ideas is precisely how grifters can deceive others for so long. It all started with a brilliant idea—from the classic Charles Ponzi to Billy McFarland, “the poster boy for millennial scamming”.

💪 Execution Trumps Ideation

As Steve Jobs said:

“(There’s) a disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90 per cent of the work, and that if you just tell all these other people, here’s this great idea, then of course they can go off and make it happen. And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship between a great idea and a great product.”

The success of any company has always relied on a combination of great ideas and execution, but more often than not, execution is the bottleneck.

Ideas are infinite, but execution is finite. New ideas emerge raw and unrefined. When subjected to intense scrutiny, you quickly realise that ideas require compromises. To make them feasible, costs must be paid through finance, commitment, or even goodwill from others.

Important ideas require people with different perspectives to clash until a consensus is reached, smoothing out the rough edges of an idea to a gleaming polish. Craftsmanship, efficient processes, and professional conduct are the whetstones needed to achieve this.

That’s why I have advocated these values to my juniors and peers for years—for fresh graduates to build career capital and these fundamental skills from the start.

💨 The Fickleness of Success

Still, much of an idea’s success and failure is also determined by factors outside our control. Even with a polished idea and excellent execution, Lady Luck may be off our side.

Take, for instance, Sony PSP’s 2005 ad campaign, where they used graffiti art to target city dwellers or “urban nomads”. Gaming on the go is the product’s selling point, but the campaign received backlash due to the perceived act of vandalism.

Future attempts by other companies were treated less harshly. In fact, graffiti is now a tourist attraction amongst heritage sites in Penang & Melaka.

Conversely, even the worst ideas and execution can achieve tremendous success. Take WeWork’s Adam Neumann and his tendency to “fail upwards” as an example. He has accumulated enormous personal wealth based on an unoriginal idea despite making strategic and management mistakes.

🔨 The Value of Craftsmanship

Although being consistently diligent doesn’t guarantee success, it still tilts the odds in our favour. By investing in good people, processes, and a good culture, a company will likely achieve more wins than losses.

Yet, I notice business leaders taking constant gambles on new, untested ideas, investing all their eggs into one basket, often at the expense of resources, business relations, and employees’ mental health. Because, at the end of the day, showmanship is more appealing than craftsmanship.

Ideas exist at the tip of the tongue. Ideas are sexier the more you blow them out of proportion to get stakeholder buy-ins. Ideas do not require their creator to do the work but rather those surrounding them.

Instead, craftsmanship is:

  • A blacksmith hammering away at bars of steel for days on end
  • A writer rewriting the same paragraph throughout an entire afternoon
  • A consultant fine-tuning slides to get the message just right
  • Or even a clown practicing night after night to make a balloon giraffe in under 15 seconds.

🧠 Ideas Vs Execution: My Takeaway

I’ve learned to value the effort people pour into their craft rather than their ideas. Even if the outcome is subpar, the grit required to hone their skills will compensate for any lack of talent down the road.

Under the proper guidance, craftsmanship is predictably more successful. Great ideas, on the other hand, are simply a roll of the dice.

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