Boards failing to support creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship

Plenary Speech by Adaptation chairman

Dubai Global Convention 2017 on Business Excellence and Innovation

Board Leadership and Excellence in Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Tuesday 18th April, 2017, Hotel The Grand Hyatt, Dubai (UAE)

Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas*

Business leaders face many challenges. They range from disruptive technologies to new business models. For some of us incremental improvement and excellence in current activities will not be enough. We need creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

We are born with a drive to reach out, connect and learn. Too often education and employment inhibits the release of creative potential. They constrain and limit, rather than inspire and liberate. People learn acceptable answers. Too rarely are they encouraged to seek their own solutions.

Corporate policies and practices should encourage and support curiosity, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, rather than frustrate and repress them.

As directors, do we really value qualities such as independence, intuition, wide interests and non-conformism? Are critical, imaginative and independent thinking recognised and rewarded?

Many directors enjoy wielding power. They may have earned their spurs in a previous era when expectations were different and possibilities more limited. Another business model may have applied. Yet, they still think they know best. They issue policies and take decisions. They then monitor the extent to which others comply and fall in line.

Directors usually justify calling the shots. They claim position privilege, broader awareness and a more strategic perspective. In reality, many directors are preoccupied with internal issues and challenges facing their companies. Front-line staff may be much closer to customers, the marketplace and local communities. They may also be earlier adopters of new technologies.

Senior executives can be surrounded by “groupthink” and the eager to please. Cocooned within a head office, they may be unaware of ferment outside and developments on-line.

More executives should engage with, observe and experience the lives of customers. Obtaining insights from different situations can open one’s eyes to changing requirements and new possibilities. It can raise questions and spark ideas.

How self-aware are the members of your board? Do they acknowledge and address their limitations? Are they listening? Are they open to new ideas and possibilities? Do they question assumptions? Do they encourage the exploration of alternatives and the creation of new options? Do they genuinely believe in the importance of challenge, discovery, experiment, exploration and trial?

Sir Karl Popper warned of enemies of the open society. Are some boards enemies of the open company? They are excessively concerned with order and standards. They are slaves to particular models and approaches. They are intolerant of diversity and reluctant to let go and empower others.

In The Future of the Organisation I set out ten essential freedoms for removing organisational constraints and liberating latent talent. People should be encouraged to challenge. They should be supported and allowed to work, learn and collaborate in ways, and at times and places, that best allow them to give of their best and be creative and productive.

Encourage people to be open about problems and to suggest solutions. Help them to learn from mistakes and failure and to build upon achievements. Pixar appreciated the importance of candour. It blossomed because openness, honesty and constructive questioning and comment were highly valued. People actively searched for better approaches.

Many boards are intolerant of diversity. Their companies employ and serve people from many nationalities in a multitude of locations. The roles and activities of employees widely differ. Markets fragment. New business models emerge. Customers may seek bespoke and personalised responses. Yet many directors try to stamp out variety and impose uniformity.

Directors and boards have a lot to answer for. Many policies, rules, regulations, guidelines and practices reflect past views, priorities and understanding. Enforcing compliance with them can stifle questioning and challenge. It can inhibit the search for new and better alternatives.

If you feel particular constraints are necessary and desirable, make sure their rationale is understood. Reward people for considering better ways of achieving their original purpose.

Many organisations exude a dull and monotonous uniformity. No wonder so many creative ideas originate outside of the workplace. Encourage diversity. What about different strategies, policies, processes and practices according to requirements, circumstances and possibilities?

Is there sufficient diversity of experience, gender and thinking in the boardroom? What about competing research projects?

Contending interests and competing solutions threaten some people. Others perceive differences of opinion as healthy. They believe that encouraging debate is more conducive of creativity and innovation than imposing single solutions.

Be wary of rigidity and bureaucracy. Network organisations can embrace customers and business partners. They can support co-creation and grow organically. Collaboration with customers and iterative development can speed up adaptation and innovation.

C P Snow warned of a growing division between science and the humanities, and the emergence of two distinct cultures. Within many companies today, is another division emerging?

Some people think in a logical and structured way. They prefer order and standardisation. Others are more tolerant of uncertainty. They favour variety and welcome diversity. They look for links, patterns and relationships. They can simultaneously explore in different arenas?

During its golden years, Xerox PARC recruited degree majors from disciplines that approached problems differently. Introducing them into research groups increased creativity. Throughout history breakthroughs in thinking have been caused by outsiders who challenged orthodoxy.

Do you look beyond the normal suspects? Are you alert to curious and restless explorers? Might greater exposure to the creative arts stimulate creativity in your organisation?

The creative arts are undergoing a revolution. Digital technologies are creating new opportunities for engagement and involvement. They are opening up new arenas for innovation and entrepreneurship. They are democratising enjoyment of the arts and participation in the arts.

More people can now find their voice and express their creativity. Channels of communication have become more open, inclusive and participative. We have more ways of being creative, connecting with others, and sharing our creativity than any generation in history.

The creative arts can enrich both working and leisure activities. They are ripe for enterprise and social entrepreneurship. They also reach beyond practitioners. They embrace the audiences, followers and exhibition visitors who enjoy their work at home or in the community.

Collaboration with creative artists can unleash energy and ignite thinking. Creative artists in residence and creative arts activities can stimulate imagination, innovation and entrepreneurship across work groups, communities and organisations.

The creative arts can also address social issues. They offer participation and self-employment as an alternative to boredom, delinquency and crime. They provide scope for philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship.

The creative arts are sustainable. Repetitive and rule-based tasks can be automated. Unstructured creative activities are more resistant to replacement by technology.

For business success, creative ideas have to be developed and commercialised. Innovation and entrepreneurial flair may be needed to deliver tangible offerings or acceptable solutions at affordable prices, that enough people will buy to cover costs and generate a profit.

While Pixar exuded creativity, attention was also devoted to practical business issues such as brand building, rights and acknowledgements. Addressing contractual matters ensured the studio derived the maximum of credit and benefit from its creativity and promising ideas

For companies to become more effective incubators of new ventures, corporate policies, rules, guidelines, standards, codes and compliance practices may need to change.

Options, choices and possibilities are multiplying. As new business and economic models emerge, past strengths can become sources of weakness and vulnerability. Directors need to be alert to defensive responses and attempts to protect vested interests.

Education and involvement in the creative arts can enhance, enable, enrich and empower. It can stimulate the creativity and commitment that leads to successful innovation and entrepreneurship. Sir James Dyson the inventor, industrial designer and vacuum cleaner entrepreneur was educated at the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Royal College of Art.

The School for the Creative Arts aims to give people the ability to explore and develop ideas, implement a business plan and fulfil commissions. Its role is to give people the ability and confidence to express themselves and become successful practitioners.

Business leaders need to discuss, consult and consider where creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship are most needed. What should they be applied to and for what purpose? What might their relevance, significance and value be for customers and prospects?

Should we take a wider range of interests into account when deciding when, where and for whom to be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial?

To have a dream can be inspiring. A relevant and affordable offering can provide an income. In business both thinking and doing are required. We need aspiration and achievement.

The requirements for effective corporate leadership and successful entrepreneurship are converging. In some contexts they may soon overlap to such an extent as to be almost indistinguishable. I wish you well as both leaders and entrepreneurs.


This talk draws upon a position paper published by Adaptation: Coulson-Thomas, Colin (2017), The Case for the Creative Arts [Position Paper No. 1/17], Peterborough, Adaptation and a chapter in the souvenir book to accompany the event: Coulson-Thomas, Colin (2017), Creativity, Innovation and the Board, in Institute of Directors. Dubai Global Convention 2017 / 27th World Congress on Business Excellence and Innovation, Souvenir, 18-20 April 2017, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, New Delhi, Institute of Directors

The speech was delivered in a plenary session of the Dubai Global Convention 2017 and 27th World Congress on Business Excellence and Innovation held on Tuesday 18th April in the Al Ameera Hall of the Hotel The Grand Hyatt, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Further Information

Details of forthcoming programmes at the School for the Creative Arts to encourage and develop creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship for leadership in the creative arts will be available on

Speaker Profile

*Prof. (Dr) Colin Coulson-Thomas is Adaptation chairman, Chancellor and a Professorial Fellow at the School for the Creative Arts, Honorary Professor at the Aston India Centre for Applied Research (Aston University) and holds a Distinguished Professorship at the Sri Sharada Institute of Indian Management-Research. In addition to board and academic roles, he is Director-General, IOD India, UK and Europe, leads the International Governance Initiative of the Order of St Lazarus, chairs the group Risk and Audit Committee of United Learning and is a member of the Advisory Board of Bridges of Sports. Colin has served on public sector boards at national, regional and local level and been the chairman and/or president of professional, voluntary and representative bodies. The author of some 70 books and reports and over 1,000 articles he has held professorial appointments in Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, India and China. He has helped organisations in over 40 countries to harness more of the potential of their people in order to build a business or deliver better services, improve performance and simultaneously deliver multiple objectives. He has also contributed plenary addresses to over 300 national and international events, and was educated at the London School of Economics, the London Business School, UNISA and the Universities of Aston, Chicago and Southern California. A fellow of seven chartered bodies he secured first place prizes in the final examinations of three professions. He can be contacted at His latest publications on quicker, more affordable and less disruptive routes to high performance organisations are available from


26 Apr 2017
Colin Coulson-Thomas