The Hothouse Effect: Intensify Creativity in Your Organization Using Secrets from History's Most Innovative Communities

Dennis J. Cahill (President, North Union Associates, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio, USA)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 September 2005




Cahill, D.J. (2005), "The Hothouse Effect: Intensify Creativity in Your Organization Using Secrets from History's Most Innovative Communities", On the Horizon, Vol. 13 No. 3, pp. 182-183.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The “hothouse effect” in this book is the process by which certain communities at certain times in history have left behind large legacies of creativity: ancient Athens, fifteenth century Florence, Polaroid Corporation under Edwin Land … Kunstler asks four overarching questions of the evidence of these communities (p. 2):

  1. 1.

    Why did one community produce numerous creative products that literally changed the world, while equally prominent contemporaneous neighbors within the same cultural zone did not?

  2. 2.

    Did specific historical factors predispose these hothouse communities to be highly creative? Did they utilize specific techniques to heighten their creativity?

  3. 3.

    If we can identify these factors and techniques, can modern organizations apply them to heighten their creativity?

  4. 4.

    Would increasing creativity improve the performance of today's organizations?

As a first answer to these questions, Kunstler asserts that our focus on the individual creative person is wrong, but not in the sense that so much of the literature on innovation puts it; it is not that creativity and innovation have become corporate, that the lab staffed with dozens, if not hundreds, of researchers is now the norm. Kunstler, rather, says that the creatives are more likely to emerge from within a group of skilled practitioners than from isolation (p. 3). Although this statement almost appears to be the same as the current view of innovation, it is not. He does not focus on scientific innovation, but rather multiple forms of creativity; such focus allows a view of the individual artist (he examines Leonardo da Vinci's life, for instance) as arising from within a large social context – it was easier for an artist to work in Florence than in Palermo, Sicily, at the beginning of the Renaissance – because there were more artists working in Florence than in Palermo.

Communities that generate Kunstler's hothouse effect are identifiable because they can accomplish the following the following results (p. 7):

  • Sustain a high level of innovative creativity for a significant period of time.

  • Draw on the knowledge and innovations of the broader cultural zone to which it belongs.

  • Spawn geniuses whose achievements climax the work of many other practitioners at all levels of achievement, from the brilliant on down to the work‐a‐day purveyor of common goods.

  • Establish a new idiom, a new way of doing things that informs its creative products and establishes new standards, procedures, and principles in a variety of fields.

  • Achieve recognition from contemporaries and establish a lasting legacy to which future generations continually return and emulate.

Kunstler has developed CHAI‐T, an assessment instrument so that readers of this book can discover how “hothouse‐y” their organization is; there are 36 factors which he lists in four dimensions that show and stimulate the hothouse effect (pp. 14‐17). The dimensions are: values/mission, ideas/exchange, perception/learning, and social/play.

The rest of the book is devoted to an exploration of the examples of hothouse communities and where/how these factors have had an impact on these communities. Although many of these communities are relatively well‐known to historians – Periclean Athens and Renaissance Florence for instance – Kunstler looks at them in a new light. His analysis is refreshing, although parts of it might be called into question by specialists in the history of these communities. Other communities are less familiar to historians, but more familiar to those who research innovation and creativity. Edwin Land's tenure as chairman of Polaroid Corporation is well‐known to such researchers; he insisted on a wide‐open laboratory culture so that innovation could flourish, much as 3‐M is today. Less well known is the story of Sequent Computers, but Kunstler examines these from the viewpoint of an historian, and thus provides a consistent framework. All 36 factors are examined in detail, with examples of where these factors have had impact in one of the communities.

This is an interesting book. The cross‐pollination of historical analysis with the innovation/creativity literature lends a new dimension to the questions of innovation and how to foster it. And although some of the apparatus might seem to be of a cookbook type, this is definitely not a cookbook for fomenting innovation. Although there are 36 factors presented, nowhere does Kunstler say these are necessary and sufficient for innovation – they are present in hothouses … where innovation flourish and a feverish pace. And not every organization wants or needs innovation at that pace. Pericles was accused by his political rivals of costuming Athens “like a whore” because he had built magnificent temples – notably the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis, which today are regarded as gems of classical Greek architecture. “It can be tough living inside the hothouse effect” (p. 88).

Organizations that are willing to bear the costs and burdens of stoking their innovation efforts up to the levels of “hothouses” would do well to heed Kunstler's lessons, factors, and dimensions. The CHAI‐T instrument is easy to fill out and score and would make it easy for managements of organizations to increase their innovation efforts with little expenditure of resources. I am currently consulting with a firm whose innovation has, over the almost‐25 years I have been associated with it, certainly approached hothouse status – and possibly fits the metaphor: I am in the process of trying this instrument there with management's wholehearted approval.

This book is a worthy addition to the innovation/creativity bookshelf.

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