Innovation and Creativity Competences – Stop and Smell the Hills


The Fringe has started up here in Edinburgh and the city is overflowing with the wildest, maddest, funniest expressions of creativity. And yet the most inspiring couple of days I’ve had in years were last weekend with my stepbrother on the west coast of Scotland. Mike is spending two months on a residency project on Rosneath peninsula. His studio overlooks the water, the forests and the hills Scotland is famous for. Mike’s an artist, a very talented one. Yet he’s not on the residency specifically to produce anything physical. He’s there to think. And note that I’m not saying “just to think” or “simply to think”.

Like most of us, Mike typically finds very little time to think – he’s part of the London art scene and constantly collaborating on installations or rushing somewhere trying to secure funds. When I asked him when he usually works on his own stuff, he answered, “Late at night, usually 12-2 am, or else early, 5-7am…Because no one calls. No one needs anything.”

How many of the managers I have worked with have said the same thing? As we stumble and lurch through our diaries from appointment to appointment, where do we pause to breathe let alone come up with inspiration?

One of the business buzzwords over the last few years has been innovation. As we struggle to stay ahead of the curve in ever busier, more diverse and individualised markets, we look for innovation wherever we can find it in the belief that success comes to those with the latest ideas and practices. To help us hit this elusive target, competency frameworks increasingly include competences clustered around innovation and creativity. And so we have items like risk taking, passion, optimism, tolerance of uncertainty, forecasting, managing change, synthetic thinking, collaborating, creative problem solving, technological savvy, and so on, and so on.

All of these are based on the premise that INNOVATION = CREATIVITY + ACTION.

And yet rarely do I see the element of ringfencing, the idea of creating a dedicated space to think. A space to let the tortoise mind out to roam. It’s not time management as such. Most leaders I know are excellent time managers if only through necessity.

This is not a groundbreaking revelation, but sometimes the blatantly obvious needs to be said. Sometimes the game-changer is as simple as stop and smell the hills. Get out. Timetable into your day some time and some place to think. To be by yourself. Most companies do enough team brainstorming sessions already – ‘flipchart HR’ one of my coachees calls it. The group stuff can come before or after, though even here, my experience has been that too few facilitators allow time for individual reflection, often for fear of losing pace and ‘fun’ – and before you accuse me of bias, as an activist / pragmatist learner I thrive on role games and icebreakers and all the rest.

For some people this time or space comes through physical activity like running or walking. For others it is through meditation in that magical point between alpha and theta brainwaves. Some of us need someone to bounce ideas off. For others a blank wall and a pack of post-its will do. As a coach, I find myself in ‘bouncing’ conversations a lot. But I know that coaches typically only help to start the ball rolling or light up paths down which coachees find answers usually long after the coaching session.

For me, it’s the hills where inspiration comes, as literally as the meaning to ‘breathe in’. I’m a great believer in whole brain thinking. I also believe that inspiration often strikes at the unlikeliest of moments. And yet I also believe that sometimes we just need to metaphorically close the door, put the music on loud, and focus on our thoughts. Even if we’re halfway up a Munro.

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.