Creativity at the Heart of Businesses: a Key to Success?

By Clara Bütow

What role does creativity play for business innovation, profits and talent management? I had the pleasure to attend a session called Creativity at the Heart of Business: a Key to Success? at the European Business Summit in Brussels. The panel discussion on creativity brought together leaders from corporate, entrepreneurial and artistic fields and was moderated by Bartholomeus-Henri Van de Velde, the conductor of the Charlemagne Orchestra for EU. The four experts debating the topic were Javier Echarri, the CEO of EBN Innovation Network, Zeldah Schrama, consultant at Connect Africa Group, Frederique Paccagnella, the director of Excel Careers and the Angela Mortimer Group as well as the CEO and founder of Bundl, Thomas Van Halewyck.

Creativity can be a way to create innovations, but usually only leads to business success when incorporated in focused strategic approaches. Innovation on the other hand starts with a market need and the development of a product-market fit, so Thomas van Halewyck, who builds startups for corporations. A disruption can only take place whenever such innovation is scalable across the whole market, he added. Thus, business must focus on the market need and economic indicators when assessing the feasibility, validity and scalability of creative ideas to select those that best can represent a potential disruption. Frederique Paccagnella agreed that innovation at all cost can be no guarantee for success, as “innovation and creativity, if not linked to efficiency, will not go anywhere”.

The panel seemed very decided on the fact that we do not lack great ideas for innovation. Javier Echarri pointed out that what is really needed is not creativity, but rather execution and support for entrepreneurs as well as entrepreneurs who lead change within their own organization. Zeldah Schrama stressed the need for corporations to go step by step towards more innovative processes and products instead of breaking down all their walls to “become Google from one day to another”. Especially more traditional and larger companies can struggle in the incorporation of processes and organizational structures that allow more creativity and innovation; thus it is important to acknowledge the specific culture of each organization when thinking about modernizing. Van Halewyck described, that there are two main ways to make your company more innovative: either by trainings such as hackathons or design thinking initiatives that trigger innovative skills of employees; or by supporting the few already entrepreneurial and innovative talents in the company to pursue their ideas and innovate the company from within. Such initiatives will automatically inspire the rest of the company and create spill-over effects for all employees, ultimately updating the corporate culture, so van Halewyck. Schrama added that besides the importance to give space for free thought and ideas, focus is important to focus employee creativity in the right direction.

Creativity has a very big human component and cannot be detached from both the inherent personalities of employees as well as the way employees are treated and encouraged inside the organization. Drawing an analogy to the orchestra, the moderator and conductor of Charlemagne Orchestra showed that whilst the core of the organisation will follow rules and work almost automatically, a “grey zone” of more independent and creative people is necessary and enriching for the whole organisation. Those people at the boundaries of following and independence bring a different mind-set as well as inspiration to the core of the organisation and should not attempt to be pushed out of the grey zone by assimilation. As in the orchestra, managers must listen to each individual, take their strength and creative capacities into account – only then can harmony and excellent performance be achieved by the orchestra as a whole. Human resource expert Paccagnella suggested that creativity is something deeply embedded in a person’s character and depending on the creativeness of each person different management practices may be required. Not every employee wants to have an environment that encourages or emphasises creative thinking, therefore it is extremely important to match the right people with the right job. This means taking into account personality traits, preferences and characteristics rather than forcing everyone to be more or less creative. Only placing the right individuals in a job that represents their skills, mindset and values will maximize the outcomes of the corporation.

Speaking of values, the experts touched upon one final topic that combines talent management, culture and creativity: How can companies use their innovations to drive social purpose and values? As we have seen in many of the discussions at this year’s European Business Summit, responsible and sustainable business, that contributes rather than takes from society and the planet, is a rising topic for global leaders. Not only governments and regulations, but also customers and even the competitive environment is now demanding more from companies than mere profit generation. “How can startups better use their innovative thinking to solve real challenges of society”, Echarri asked while pointing at increasing support and interest in such hybrid initiatives. Schuma added that while Western startups such as Tinder and Deliveroo address entertainment and comfort, a much higher percentage of companies created in emerging markets respond to an actual social or structural need of society. She linked this trend to the rapid innovation growth in Africa and its leading position in the mobile money sector as well as great competitiveness in agritech and fintech.

As Schuma said, “we cannot divorce creativity from innovation”. Should we then, as members of government or people in business, use the creative approach to solve some of the biggest global challenges and obtain leadership in a changing world?

Clara is an hard-working student in both business and international relations at IE Business School, with a passion for sustainability and social impact. As founder of Impact Revolution and the Traveling Trash Tour, co-founder of the first European B Impact Team, she takes forward solutions how individuals, entrepreneurs and businesses can change the world for the better.