Book by UMass Amherst Professor Challenges Myths About Sources of Corporate Creativity

October 15, 1997

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AMHERST, Mass. - A University of Massachusetts professor argues in a new book that most creative acts in business are unplanned and unexpected, come from ordinary people, and aren''t triggered by reward-based programs or familiar suggestion-box methods.

Instead, Alan G. Robinson of the UMass School of Management and co-author Sam Stern of Oregon State University say in "Corporate Creativity" that corporate managers can only increase creativity and innovation in business if they''re prepared to look where the authors have found it will take place - where it is least expected.

A key concept of the book is that managers cannot predict who, where, when, or how creative ideas will happen. Only when managers understand this can they create a work environment that delivers creative actions, according to Robinson and Stern. "The fact that most creative acts cannot be anticipated should be seen, not as a source of discomfort, but as a fact of corporate life," Robinson and Stern say. "While many things can be directly planned for and controlled, creativity cannot." But this does not mean nothing can be done about it.

Robinson and Stern cite examples to support their views on corporate creativity:

Kathy Betts, a part-time worker for the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare, in 1991 found a loophole in federal Medicaid regulations that has meant an additional $1.4 billion in federal payments to Massachusetts. And Betts, the authors say, was probably the only person in state government who could have done what she did.

Railway construction workers tunneling through a mountain in Japan laying a new track for bullet trains were having problems with water coming from somewhere inside the mountain. Managers sought to get rid of it, but one worker who had been drinking the mineral water said it tasted so good, the company should bottle it. The company, Japan Railways East, agreed, and began to sell the water. In 1994 sales of its water and other beverages were $47 million, enough to make the difference between profitability and loss.

In both cases, Robinson and Stern say, top managers couldn''t have foreseen either the opportunity or successful outcome, but an ordinary worker was in the right place at the right time to see the potential for innovative change. An additional benefit is workers who find creative innovations also find new meaning in their jobs, the authors say.