Creativity Eats Culture For Breakfast

In Brief

  • Peter Drucker, known as the father of modern management, is famously quoted as saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
  • Great cultures cannot survive without great ideas and innovation.
  • Innovative companies have one thing in common – a very small number of super creative people and a leadership team who are willing to take risks.
  • Creativity is not an experience-related skill. Companies have to better understand creativity in order to identify those in a company that can make a contribution.

The Details

Peter Drucker, known as the father of modern management, is famously quoted as saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Great cultures cannot survive without great ideas and innovation, though. Just look at Nokia, for example. The dominant titan of the global mobile phone market, peaking in 2007 at nearly 50% market share, was decimated in the years that followed Apple’s entry into their prized territory, which was, ironically, also 2007. Was it Nokia’s culture that was to blame? What, the same culture that led them to own half the global market for mobile phones that year? It’s very difficult to change the culture of a company with 100,000 people overnight unless you conflate the term culture with “leadership team.” What is a much more plausible explanation is that an individual at a different company came up with a better idea, and that company backed the idea, and innovation, which is ultimately creativity, triumphed. The company with the better idea, in this case, was Apple. Creativity eats culture for breakfast.

It is easy to forget  about Apple back in the darker years before Steve Jobs rejoined in 1997, having left under a cloud in 1985. Some may remember Apple’s first attempt at something approximating an iPad, which was the Apple Newton, launched in 1993. It was a complete flop. Things didn’t really pick up for Apple again until 1998 when the iMac G3 was launched. This was Steve Job’s first big launch since rejoining but he didn’t design the iMac G3. The person that designed it is is credited with every single successful Apple design since then until today? That person is Sir Jony Ive, of course. When the iMac G3 launched in 1998, Apple was losing money, and its stock price was 17 cents. By January 2007, the month the first iPhone came out, the stock was up to $5.  Now in 2021, the stock price is $120. Jony Ive left in June 2019, but his legacy is every single successful product ever created since Steve Jobs rejoined in 1997, including the iPod, iPhone, MacBook Air, iPad, Apple Watch, Airpods, and others.

It is certainly fair to suggest that Apple is not Jony Ive, and nor is it Steve Jobs. One may also suggest that it is a culture of innovation that made a company like Apple what it is today. But what is an innovative culture if not a group of innovative individuals and risk takers? You cannot have innovation without risk. To innovate is to do something new. To do something new carries risk as there are little to no reference points of comparison to weigh up whether a product or service may or may not work. However, innovation happens at an individual level. Ideas happen at an individual level. It may be a team, sure, but the ideas come from individuals. The end idea may be a progression of different individual’s input, but the point here is, creativity is the root of innovation, not culture. Sir Jony designed the products, and it was Steve Jobs that gave the green light. Is this due to an innovative culture or innovative individuals? Are these one and the same? I don’t think they are. If you consider the example of Nokia, at one point they were the undisputed innovators in the mobile phone market. Did they not have an “innovative culture?” They must have. But how can you describe the culture of a company with 100,000 people as being innovative? Is it because the company innovates? It isn’t useful to those seeking to be more innovative to be told that a company is innovative because of culture. That doesn’t tell anyone how to get better at innovation.

Innovative companies have one thing in common – a very small number of super creative people and a leadership team who are willing to take risks? What do creative types and risk takers have in common? They are both high in “Openeness” which is one of the Big Five personality traits, the closest thing we have in psychological science to a taxonomy of personalities. Generally speaking, the Big Five accounts for most of what IQ doesn’t account for when it comes to how successful we may be in the workplace. The other four of the Big Five traits are Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, and Extraversion. Observing individuals through the eyes of the Big Five, we can account for a lot of individual behavior and why we are the way we are.

Openness tends to indicate people who are curious, imaginative, and creative problem solvers (Carson, Peterson, & Higgins, 2005). People who score highly on this dimension have a greater tendency towards cognitive exploration and also manifest higher levels of cognitive flexibility and divergent thinking (DeYoung, Peterson, & Higgins, 2005). This is a critical trait for leaders, and for me, the defining Big Five trait that separates visionary leaders from managers. Managers don’t necessarily need to be high in openness. They don’t need to have the ideas or be great problem solvers. They have to complete tasks and make sure teams of people are doing what is asked of them, all within the confines of a specific set of rules. That is more to do with conscientiousness rather than openness.

Openness is highly linked to creativity. Creativity includes ideas and problem solving and is highly correlated with intelligence. That’s not to say that intelligent people are all creative, but one can make the argument that intelligent people know how to solve problems; at least certain types of problems. It is certainly true that creative people tend to be intelligent, but again, not on all dimensions of intelligence all of the time. Think about a spectrum between outrageously inventive entrepreneurs at one end, and extremely good operations managers at another end. The psychologist Jordan Peterson, once said that liberals start companies and conservatives run them. Creative people tend to be more liberal, although not always, and managers tend to be more conservative. Their temperament is just different. This is one of the reasons why innovation stifles in large companies. Creative people with ideas start companies, and then they have to hire orderly conscientious people to run them so that things get done, and tasks are completed. As the company grows, hierarchies are necessary to maintain order in the company, and so more conscientious manager types are hired, and before you know it, innovation can be at risk.

I find it interesting that large companies, like in the banking sector, for example, have these “innovation labs.” They started popping up around ten years ago when the fintech space was starting to emerge. To me, they would more suitably be called “procrastination labs” as they’re a reaction to the external threat of innovative companies who are nimble enough to innovate. The bank’s response is, “Wait, how come these companies are carving out market share when we own this market? Why aren’t we innovating? I know, let’s set up innovation labs and start relationships with these startups and see what we can learn from them.” All they’re going to learn is that their own structure doesn’t allow for incredible ideas to percolate up through the top-down management brick walls where experience is valued way more than ideas. These innovation labs are a good step forward for these banks, but, in my opinion, the root of the problem is the company structure and culture.

Identifying those who are clearly high in openness and utilizing their creativity to explore new ideas, regardless of what level they’re at, will allow innovation to flourish even in the largest of companies. Instead of companies spending hundreds of millions of dollars on consulting firms to create the right management structure with the right number of layers, they should be paying equal attention to innovation, and that comes from ideas, and ideas come from thin air from people who are creatively minded. Creativity is not like management experience. You don’t have to be in a company for years before you qualify to be creative. Also, people think of creativity as art and music, but rarely think of it as problem solving and ideas. Creativity is in people, but only in those that creativity resides. Not everyone is creative. Aesthetics and ideas, the two cornerstones of the Big Five trait, openness, often come hand in hand, and so companies would be doing themselves a great service to identify who these people are, and give them a white coat and see what happens. They don’t even need a white coat. They just need a voice.

If you’re reading this as someone who’s “stuck” in a company and your brain is on fire all the time with ideas, or you’re super interested in ideas and maybe also art or design, for example, the chances are you’re going to continue feeling stuck until you find an outlet for all of these things that occupy your brain. That outlet could be a hobby, creating music or art, or whatever interests you, but you may also just be destined to be an entrepreneur. That, by the way, is a blessing and a curse all at the same time. The curse part is that you’ll never feel happy or fulfilled in a job where you can’t contribute or action your ideas. You’ll bounce from job to job just feeling unfulfilled and only feeling any degree of excitement when you first start, and everything is new again. Lawyers and accountants, for example, don’t tend to score very high on trait openness, but they score extremely high on conscientiousness. Think about their role for a moment. It makes sense. Their whole world is a set of governed strict rules, and unless you’re Bernie Madoff’s accountant, where you could successfully argue your accounting was very creative, the chances are you won’t find many creative types working in that field.

In my view, the exception to this is individuals who were clearly very creative at school, but then followed their parent’s wishes into university to become a well-respected accountant or a lawyer, for example. Those individuals will know who they are as they will be unfulfilled, unlike the highly dutiful conscientious individuals who just love working with rules and structure. Sound familiar? Neither is right or wrong. These are just different personalities, and this is very poorly understood by the corporate world. If it was better understood, we’d all be much more cognizant of these issues.

We cannot scientifically account for why some people are incredible at drawing, singing, or writing music, other than to say they are high in the Big Five trait, openness. That doesn’t explain their talent. We can see their talent in their work, but we can’t explain it. Also, such individuals do not produce the greatest work of all time, every time. They make mistakes, or they may produce work that is below par for them, on occasion.

The bottom line is you don’t start a company with a culture. You start a company with an idea, a product, or a service. Ideas come from creative people, and despite our claims, we are not all creative. If you do not identify and nurture the creative types in your company and give them a platform to speak, regardless of how junior they are,  you are missing on what could have been. You are also leaving your company-wide open to those competitors who haven’t succumbed to the bureaucratic structures that govern larger companies. When that happens, it’s just your company culture that will be eaten by your competitor’s creativity; they’ll also be eating your lunch.


About The Author

Fraser Hill is the founder of the leadership consulting and assessment company, Bremnus, as well as the founder and creator of, an HR software company aimed at experienced hire interview and selection in corporates and executive search firms. His 20+ year career has brought him to London, Hong Kong, Eastern Europe, Canada, and now the US where he lives and works. His new book is The CEO’s Greatest Asset – The Art and Science of Landing Leaders.

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