Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 44;   October 29, 2014: Rationalizing Creativity at Work: I

Rationalizing Creativity at Work: I

by

Much of the work of modern organizations requires creative thinking. But financial and schedule pressures can cause us to adopt processes that unexpectedly and paradoxically suppress creativity, thereby increasing costs and stretching schedules. What are the properties of effective approaches?
A collaboration session in a modern workplace

A collaboration session in a modern workplace. The very structure of the session encourages creative collaboration. Everyone can see the whiteboard, where people have written notes and ideas. People are free to move their chairs to any location they need, enabling dynamic reconfiguration for content-dependent discussion. And there is no "head" of the room — hierarchy, if it exists, is unclear, and possibly fluid. Photo (cc) by Subhashish Panigrahi courtesy Wikimedia.

In everyday conversation, as in psychology, to rationalize is to deal with emotional conflict about an act or behavior by creating sometimes-elaborate explanations that make it seem plausible, justified, or even admirable, thus resolving the conflict. In this way we can relieve feelings such as guilt, regret, or embarrassment. Or we might use rationalization to assert innocence or to elude punishment. But in the context of economics, the term has other meanings. In economics, to rationalize is to alter a process or procedure, based on careful design, to achieve specific goals, usually related to cost savings, efficiency enhancement, or compliance with accepted rules. That is the sense of the term we'll use here, as we explore what happens when we rationalize creativity at work.

Brainstorming is one effective form of rationalizing creativity. In brainstorming, we create a "container" that encourages creativity and accelerates problem solving.

Rationalizing creativity at work doesn't always get us what we want. Sometimes we miss by a lot. Sometimes rationalization snuffs out creativity altogether. What distinguishes effective and ineffective approaches to rationalizing creativity? Let's begin with properties of effective approaches.

They encourage novel collaborations
In most modern workplaces, collaboration is essential to creativity. Interaction formats and cultural norms are especially helpful if they stimulate collaborations between people who might not otherwise collaborate.
Collaborations Encouraging creativity doesn't always
get us what we want. Sometimes
we miss by a lot. Sometimes
we snuff out creativity altogether.
between people who have dramatically different degrees of organizational power can be very productive. But they are difficult to manage and difficult to encourage. If you can find a framework within which to create such collaborations, truly valuable insights can result.
They relax social constraints
Relaxing social constraints frees people to think in novel ways and to contribute those novel thoughts. Removing restrictions on the acceptability of ideas, or restrictions on the acceptability of proposing certain ideas, is usually helpful.
Frameworks that effectively stimulate creativity must deal with social constraints relating to organizational power. The powerful are sometimes reluctant to be open to collaboration with the less powerful, and the less powerful are sometimes intimidated by the powerful. Power is like a wall between the more powerful and the less powerful.
They stimulate fresh perspectives
Because looking at a problem from a fresh perspective stimulates new insights, environments or frameworks that encourage fresh perspectives accelerate problem solving and innovation.
This is one reason why "retreat" formats are so productive so often. They take people out of their customary environments, away from the routine of the everyday. But take care not to surround people with distractions. Resort environments are nice, but the risk of a resort is that people will enjoy the resort, and pay little attention to the issues motivating the retreat.

Next time, we'll examine some properties of approaches that tend to suppress creativity.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Rationalizing Creativity at Work: II  Next Issue

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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

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The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's assumptions are.
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When we find ourselves at a loss for finding a good path forward, and we feel overwhelmed by events, support can make things easier. But seeking support is difficult for some. Why is that?
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When estimating the probabilities of success of different strategies, we must often estimate the probability of multiple events occurring. People make a common mistake when forming such estimates. They assume that events are independent when they are not.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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