A Design Expert on Maximizing Creativity in the Workplace - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A Design Expert on Maximizing Creativity in the Workplace

A Design Expert on Maximizing Creativity in the Workplace

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because analyzing the analysis of how we collectively kill or coddle ideas is the name of the game.

By Eugene S. Robinson

OZY is coming together with JPMorgan Chase to bring you an inside look at an emerging group of men and women from around the world who are redefining what it means to be a powerhouse in today’s workplace. Enjoy the rest of our special series here and here.

Dave Owens is a little distracted.

“Got waylaid by our first-year MBA student [Taylor Force] who was stabbed and died in Israel yesterday. Really sad for him to come home after three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan only to be killed during a school trip,” says Owens, professor of the practice of management and innovation at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville.

Amid meditations on the ephemeral nature of life, the composed and measured Owens works into his field of focus and obsessive interest for the past 20-plus years: why some great ideas succeed and others fail. Specifically, how ideas are either nurtured or neutered by leaders and the organizations they lead. Organizations that will ofttimes get all the real work done. Owens came by his obsession honestly, being the brother of a dynamo of an older sister, and both being raised in Germany, the products of an American military man and a German woman. 

Little doubt that his background prepared Owens to take nontraditional paths. But glimpsing everything — from his high school marching band days, his stint as a drummer in a punk band and a college career at Stanford that involved a year-and-a-half detour into stereo installation — you’d still struggle to see the constant pull of what Owens describes as “the life of the mind.” He graduated Stanford with a degree in electrical engineering, but his path started in earnest when he ran into a buddy on the street in Palo Alto, California. Said buddy was working at David Kelley Design, later IDEO, the now-famous design and innovation firm, and it was a wrap.

More important, though, is not making so much stuff that isn’t really needed. Designing for true needs is a big part of good design.

Dan Adams, engineer

“My biggest insight was that you could look at a product as being the manifestation or outcome of a set of interpersonal and organizational ‘negotiations,’ or battles, over subjective decisions,” Owens says, looking much younger than his nearly 50 years. At Dell, “the operations people won most of the battles,” he says, leading to machines that were cheap, modular, efficiently produced and not much to look at. Contrast with Apple’s machines, “you could see that design and marketing had won quite a few more battles — their machines were expensive, hard to produce and beautiful.”

That realization led to certain recondite truths that stretched well beyond all of the laptop and tech making its way past him. Mostly, the ideas that how we build the building blocks affects what we build, and that we actually need the stuff we build to live. “Yeah, take away all the designed stuff and most of us wouldn’t last more than a month,” Owens says with a laugh. This whole line of thought and thinking took him back to academia, a Ph.D., and a career that blasted off. After stops at Daimler-Benz, Apple and Dell, Owens landed as CEO at Griffin Technology, where he got to put his money where his mouth was in terms of structuring organizational behavior around his ideas on maximizing creativity. 


Some scoff at the notion that creativity can be maximized, much in the same way that the debate rages over whether rhythm can really be taught to bad dancers or if the right paints can make a good painter. “While the most dazzling innovations might be more likely the products of talent and providence, there are people who benefit from structured design methodology,” says Andy Hope, a Stanford design genius who ultimately ended up an artist. The contention is made even clearer in Owens’ book, Creative People Must Be Stopped: 6 Ways We Kill Innovation (Without Even Trying), which he started after heading back, one final time, to academia. The book grew out of ideas he started poking around in when working on his dissertation, “Status Contests in Meetings: Negotiating the Informal Order.”  

Ultimately, this stuff is the meat and potatoes of business school curricula, if not research and development and design programs. That’s why Owens has been the man in demand, consulting at Cisco, Nissan Leaf, Alcatel, Lego, the Smithsonian and Gibson, among others. Says Owens: “The world is being filled with stuff at an increasing rate, stuff being designed under conditions where we’d not acknowledged the values being built into the stuff and had not understood how we did.”

Rushing home after a day of putting out various workplace fires, Owens adds that this is, in total, what his place in space is about. If people realize that they are actually creative by almost any definition of the word, he posits, that’s halfway to doing the heavy lifting of expressing that creativity routinely in situations that matter. Moreover, if people feel empowered to get involved in the world via innovation, he believes they’ll heed the obligation to intervene along the lines of our better social values. “Being conflict-averse, I tend to not dictate what the values should be,” says Owens, “but I do insist that those with whom I work at least own the fact that their values, along with all kinds of oft-ignored interpersonal dynamics, are at work as well.”

“I’d say that Dave’s interest is how one goes about getting good products out into the world — the whole process, from idea through funding, design, development, manufacturing and marketing,” concludes Stanford Professor Emeritus Jim Adams, a former adviser and author of several books on creativity. “He may not be No. 1 in the world in all of these areas, but he’s good in all of them and especially good in how they interact, and that’s what the world needs — and so do universities, whether they know it or not.” 

This editorial article was originally created by OZY Media and published on OZY.com prior to, and independently of its inclusion in this JP Morgan Chase & Co. sponsored series. OZY Media claims the full rights and responsibilities of this article.

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