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Volume 14, Issue 45;   November 5, 2014: Rationalizing Creativity at Work: II

Rationalizing Creativity at Work: II

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

Creative thinking at work can be nurtured or encouraged, but not forced or compelled. Leaders who try to compel creativity because of very real financial and schedule pressures rarely get the results they seek. Here are examples of tactics people use in mostly-futile attempts to compel creativity.
XP-80 prototype Lulu-Belle on the ground

XP-80 prototype Lulu-Belle on the ground, in a photo probably taken in 1944. Although this aircraft wasn't the first US jet-powered aircraft, its operational version, the P-80 later designated the F-80, was the first operational jet aircraft to have its engine integrated into the fuselage. It arrived too late for combat in World War II but it did see service in Korea.

The XP-80 was developed as the first project of the Lockheed Skunk Works, which was a facility established by Lockheed to enable development of advanced aircraft. The concept of a skunk works, now widely used in business, is that by giving innovators autonomy, and protection from bureaucracy, we can accelerate development and facilitate innovation. A skunk works is the organizational analog of what idea generators need when groups solve problems. Photo courtesy United States Air Force.

As discussed last time, economists use the term rationalization to denote altering a process or procedure, based on careful design, to achieve goals usually related to cost savings, efficiency enhancement, or compliance with accepted rules. We then described some effective approaches to rationalizing creativity.

Let's now examine approaches to rationalizing creativity that are less effective — and sometimes even counter-effective. Here are four leadership patterns that tend to suppress creativity.

Emphasize the consequences of failure
Those who believe that fear is an effective motivator exploit this principle by making clear to subordinates that the consequences of failure are severe and personal. Organizational leaders sometimes predict layoffs or organizational collapse if "we don't get this right."
This approach is risky. Some people might elect to address the personal threat by searching for alternative employment instead of creatively solving the organizational problems.
Set people against each other
Some managers believe that competition among subordinates elicits their best performance, and that setting people against each other fosters such competition.
This theory might work at the scale of enterprises, though there is some doubt even in that case. But a competitive atmosphere at the personal level is destructive in organizations in which collaboration is essential to creative progress. Moreover, although limited levels of stress do stimulate creativity, intentional efforts to set people against each other can easily exceed those benign levels of stress.
Emphasize how more than what
When setting team or organizational goals, it's counterproductive to impose ancillary requirements on the methods of achieving those goals. For example, if the goal is reducing time to market, emphasizing the use of a particular methodology can reduce creativity.
Constraining how a goal is to be achieved tends to reduce opportunities for creativity in achieving that goal. Be certain that constraints on how are minimal and that they have sound business purposes. Then communicate these purposes clearly and make them part of the goal.
Confer power and authority according to past achievements
Managers who Constraining how a goal is to be
achieved tends to reduce opportunities
for creativity in achieving that goal
are especially risk averse tend to confer power and authority on those who have demonstrated past success.
When authors of past achievements accumulate power and authority, organizations tend to approach current problems along the lines that succeeded in the past. That's fine if current problems and current context are analogous to past problems and past context. But when problems and context are novel, creativity is required, and power and authority must be distributed differently. This is one reason why "skunk works" are so effective: their structure insulates from conventional power and authority those people who need to be creative.

As counterintuitive as it might seem, demanding creativity stifles it, as does removing all stress. Creativity needs space, time, resources, courage, and just a dash of stress. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Face-Off Negotiations  Next Issue

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