Six Things That Suck the Life Out of Corporate Creativity
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Even though most organisations employ lots of creative people full of potential, those same organisations fail to exploit that creativity in order to build innovations. This is largely the case because all too many businesses, government bodies and other organisations suck the creativity out of their employees like a vacuum cleaner gone wild. And that makes it more than a little difficult to innovate.
Here are the six biggest creativity suckers you find in organisations along with solutions that can turn those creativity absorbing things into creativity enhancers − or at least neutralise them
1. Middle Managers
Talking to people in client companies, at networking events and elsewhere, I often hear that middle managers are the worst creativity suckers of all. I am told that they are keen to destroy their direct reports' ideas with pithy responses such as, "don't be ridiculous" or "we've tried that before, it would never work" or "we've never done anything like that before, it would never work!" That the second two criticisms contradict each other is an irony that creativity sucking middle managers often don't recognise. Even those managers who are responsive to new ideas often merely compliment the idea and then ignore it, knowing that their managers would never approve the idea.
Middle managers are by and large decent, but overworked people who want to do well. I have been a middle manager and I was not notably more evil then than I am now − though I am happier now as a self-employed chap, in part because I have reduced my workload. Indeed, I suspect that lack of time and too much work to do are the real reasons middle managers fail to support the creativity of their direct reports.
To change middle managers, from creatures who suck the creativity out of their direct reports and into people who support their direct reports' creativity, top management needs to do two things. Firstly, they must prioritise innovation, and the creativity that fuels it, so that creative thinking becomes accepted as an important task across the organisation. The reason that managers, and others, put off creative thinking and innovative action is that they do not believe innovation is truly a priority, whereas spreadsheets, presentations, reports and pointless meetings are, in their minds, priorities.
Secondly, middle managers should receive training on how to be creative leaders, how to encourage relevant creative thinking in their subordinates and how to promote ideas up the corporate ladder. Being a creative manager is not merely a matter of being more creative, it is a matter of enabling your team to be more creative.
A good start for middle managers is the Three Cs. You can read more and see a video about the technique here.
Think about the ten places where you tend to have your best ideas. Your desk is almost certainly not one of them. There is a reason for this. Desks suck the creativity out of your mind. I have a desk in the office at the back of my house where I have lovely views of nature. I also have an overactive imagination that spews out ideas with reckless abandon, but not at my desk. When I am at my desk, my mind's creative thinking bits just shrivel up and become useless.
It is 10 times worse in an office with uniform desks, continuous distractions and the mind-numbing hum of electronics. it is 100 times worse in open plan offices in which background activity destroys any ideas that might still somehow be formed while sitting at a desk.
Desks may suck creativity out of their occupants, but they are generally useful in offices as places to get routine work done. However, make it a habit to get out of your desk regularly and walk around. Visit colleagues rather than email them. Take walks outside when you need to think. Hold walking meetings when you can. If your office has chairs and sofas spread about for spontaneous meetings, find a quiet place to sit and think when you need to find creative ideas. If you are a manager, encourage your team to do the same. Your direct reports may be reluctant to go for walks or request walking meetings if they do not know such behaviour is acceptable, let alone desirable.
If your corporate culture discourages going for walks, holding walking meetings or just sitting and thinking, then you need to change that aspect of your corporate culture. Quickly.
Although traditional brainstorms, in which you focus on generating a large number of ideas irrespective of the quality of each idea, have been the mainstay of corporate creativity for decades, they are not actually effective in generating truly creative ideas that go on to become innovations. To make matters worse, brainstorming has inspired many variations all of which share the same dumb notion that when it comes to creativity, quantity is more important than quality; that all ideas should be documented regardless of their value; and that all ideas are praiseworthy.
They are not. Most ideas are a waste of time. When trying to solve a problem, the creative thinker indeed runs through lots of ideas in her mind, but she promptly rejects the stupid ones and builds upon the better ones, partly by identifying the better ideas' weaknesses and fixing them.
So what? You may ask. Well, the problem is that when you praise people for having mediocre and irrelevant ideas, you neither motivate them to be more creative nor give them the tools to self-criticise a weak idea and build it into a strong idea. Why bother making the effort and taking the risk to build a really creative idea when the expensive creativity consultant your firm hired dances with joy whenever you share a daft notion?
The first part of the solution to this one is a no-brainer: don't waste time and resources with brainstorms. They really are not worth it. If you've brainstormed in the past, reflect upon the results and you'll recall that a lot of effort went into dismal results. You should also avoid any creative thinking techniques that praise all ideas irrespective of quality. If you praise a child's every action, she will never learn which actions are admirable and which are not. Likewise, if you praise a colleague's every idea, she will never work out which ideas are admirable and which are not. But, if you praise the truly creative ideas, she will learn; she will become a creative contributor to your organisation's innovation initiative. And if you respectfully criticise weak ideas, she will learn to reject useless ideas and improve upon weak ideas with potential.
Secondly, learn how to use creative thinking methodologies which focus on quality rather than quantity. Needless-to-say (if you know me), I believe that anticonventional thinking (ACT) is the best method.
Thirdly, instead of focusing on initiatives that result in lots of little ideas, focus on initiatives that result in big, well developed ideas. Competitions to develop new business ideas, in which teams must produce business plans, are an example. Having teams build ideas out of construction materials, Lego building bricks or wooden building blocks are another example. This is how ACT works. The aim is to build a single creative vision not a long list of mediocre ideas.
When most people face a problem these days, their first instinct is to Google the problem and then follow the advice in the top results. On one hand this is marvellous. Never before in the history of the human race have solutions, to nearly every problem imaginable, been so readily available to nearly everyone.
On the other hand, this is terrible. As people become reliant on Google to solve their problems, they use their own creativity to solve problems less often. Moreover, because the top results in any Google query are the most popular solutions to the given problem, they are conventional solutions. This reinforces the use of conventional solutions rather than unconventional solutions and fails to inspire people with stories of unconventional, creative solutions. As a result, people do not need to be creative when they face problems − they just need WiFi.
Don't worry, I am not going to suggest that you ban Google and other search engines! They have their place in creativity, but they should not be the starting point in problem solving. Instead, learn to try and solve problems yourself first. Then, if you are unsure about your ideas, Google them and see what others have − or have not − done. Learning to solve problems with your mind keeps your mind creative.
In addition, invest in creative thinking training for your team. If your office is not a hotbed of creativity, then your colleagues and direct reports are not going to follow this advice. But, if they participate in creative training programmes they can learn the value and pleasure of using creativity to solve problems and achieve goals.
5. Approval Processes
The reason middle managers (see above) often say things like, "that idea would never work here," is that they know their employer's approval methods are creativity sucking processes that ensure any idea born brilliant soon becomes conventional and boring.
Some companies carry this methodology to an extreme by using a divergent-convergent approach in which people are encouraged to be divergent and creative in their thinking only to put the resulting ideas into a funnel that squeezes the creativity out of them. This is rather like putting your name on a blackboard by writing 100s of names all over it and then erasing all the names that are not yours.
The thing with approval processes is that they not only ruin or reject creative ideas, but they suck the creativity out of the workforce. People learn that investing their time in building a creative idea is like investing money in a company on the verge of bankruptcy: it is a wasted investment. The result: bureaucratic approval process suck the creativity out of employees and the company.
The solution is simple: redesign your approval processes in ways that encourage low-risk testing of creative ideas. If the idea is promising after such testing, further development can ensue. This testing should include regular milestones so that if the idea does not work out, it can be killed early and resources can be invested in other promising ideas. Testing ideas, rather than assuming anything unconventional will not work, is a far more effective approach to approving ideas. Sure, many ideas will fail the tests. But colleagues will learn something each time. And, many ideas will not fail the test. Instead, they will be developed into profitable innovations.
6. Employment Practices
If a big food manufacturing company is looking for a marketing manager, they will typically look for someone with an MBA in marketing and a work history of marketing, at least some of which is in the food manufacturing sector. Given several such applicants, they will choose the individual who is the best fit. The result is a marketing department that is full of people with similar educational backgrounds, similar work experience and similar ideas. They will praise each other's similar ideas and largely be reluctant to try ideas outside of their experience. The will certainly not play with ideas they believe will not work because such ideas were discussed and dismissed in a university lecture in the 90s. If someone outside the department suggests an idea that initially seems silly, they will laugh it off, amused by the inexperienced naivety of their colleague. Soon, others will learn that the marketing department − and every other department − sucks their creativity dry.
Hire for diversity rather than conformity. Take on people who have not had the expected employment history and embrace people with truly diverse backgrounds. If you are worried such people will not be competent enough in marketing (or whatever discipline), consider this: the individual who has done several diverse professional things with some level of success is probably a good learner. In these times of change, the ability to learn quickly and adopt new practices, is probably more valuable to your firm, in the long run than, is the individual who has followed a structured and focused career path that favours conformity rather than diversity.
Moreover, do not limit yourself to diversity of experience. Aim also for diversity of sex, nationality and culture. If your North American, European, Australian or New Zealand company is full of locally raised white men, you are going to limit yourself to local white men thinking and local white men ideas. If your company is full of men and women of various backgrounds, they are going to generate a richer and more exciting variety of ideas. Better still, they will be more receptive to diverse ideas.
Indeed, I would argue that hiring for diversity is actually a safer strategy than hiring for conformity.
Stop Sucking Out Creativity
Sadly, many companies launch innovation initiatives without reviewing their culture and processes and without realising that aspects of the culture and some of the processes suck the creativity out of employees. As a result, innovation initiatives, at best, capture mediocre ideas and implement few of them.
The tragedy is that ever medium to large organisation has the resources it needs to be truly innovative and that is, of course, the creative people in the organisations.
The good news is that by changing processes just a little, companies can radically change from being creativity killers to being creativity champions.
What about your company? Do you experience idea suckers? How many? Have I missed any? Share your thoughts with me, please. I value them highly!