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Buddha’s Eyebrows: Why Organizational Creativity Fails

Posted on April 30, 2015

We only have one future, and it will be made of our dreams, if we have the courage to challenge convention

Soichiro Honda

Honda’s entry into the North American motorcycle market in the 1950s has long been seen by management scholars as a triumph of focused innovation and strategic action over the haphazard approaches favored by American industry to that point. Decades later, in-depth interviews with the Honda leaders of the 1950s revealed a markedly different story. Rather than demonstrating a strategic approach to market expansion and innovation, Honda was following the gut instincts of a small expeditionary force while adapting at an incredible pace to new information about markets, designs and channels coming from direct observation and simple intuition. Soichiro Honda, founder and president of Honda at that time, was supremely confident in the success of a North American Honda launch.

How could a product like the Dream C70 fail when its gas tank had been so carefully crafted to resemble the eyebrows of the Buddha in the Sanzen-in Temple in Kyoto?

We all recognize that leveraging the adaptive capacity of our people will be necessary to succeed in an increasingly global (and competitive) market. There is no shortage of vendors willing to take up the challenge of making your people more ‘creative.’ Innovation processes are rigorous, staged and monitored by the best technology. We are experiencing a Cambrian explosion in innovation management and process. However, most of the innovations that come out the other end struggle to stick or succeed. So why is it so hard?

• Creative Roles: If all the world’s a stage, then 20th century management cast far too many in the role of furniture. We designed organizations and systems that assumed away the native creativity we all possess. Like pets, creativity was something we were allowed to have; just not something we were allowed to bring to work. Honda succeeded because they allowed those closest to the decisions to make them. Japanese firms didn’t embed creativity in a role. Creativity was an accountability shared across the organization, particularly within those closest to the end user. When we design systems that are blind to creative contributions, we lose our ability to improve and eventually our capacity to generate new ideas.

• Creative People: At some point we have come to equate creativity with the eccentric leader, firing out ideas like an overexcited duck hunter. While the ability to generate ideas is important, we mustn’t forget the root of creativity – to create. As long as we associate creativity with language rather than ‘making’ we will struggle to bring creativity back to our organizations. Ideas and strategies are clean and tidy. Making stuff is clumsy and risky. Prototyping and messiness are antithetical to our traditional understanding of properly functioning organizations. And so we struggle to support new ideas.

To create is human. Our understanding of organizational life has marginalized the creative energy of far too many by investing the right to create in the hands of a narrow cadre of senior leaders and eccentric ideators. Soichiro Honda had no formal education and moved away from home at the age of 15 to begin an apprenticeship in Tokyo. When asked later in life about why he founded his motorcycle company, Honda said that he happened on the idea of fitting an engine to a bicycle because he had become fed up with riding on crowded trains and buses.

Jerry McGrath applies best practices from creative and entrepreneurial communities to support partner organizations and movements. His interest is in how to support existing institutions to become as adaptive as startups and to contribute to the rehabilitation of the concept of leadership for the 21st century. Areas of specialization include strategic planning within creative organizations, strategic innovation, agile approaches to innovation, design approaches and thinking, open leadership, entrepreneurialism and the future of work.