Cartoon: boss wants creative people, but expects them to conform too much

Business Leaders Say Creativity Is Important, But...

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

There is a massive disconnect between what business leaders say about creativity and what they do. They say that creativity is essential to their organisations. Yet, they do not actually encourage creativity. If anything, too many leaders are actively stifling creativity. They say they absolutely need to hire more creative people, in terms of quantity and quality. Yet, they are not actually making any effort to hire creative thinkers or even people who have different backgrounds from existing employees − which would bring diversity of thought. They say that creative leaders are essential to their organisations' futures, yet creative people are seldom promoted into management positions. All of this is probably well known to you, my friend, and me. The question we need to ask ourselves is "Why?"

Why do business leaders say they need creative employees and creative ideas, yet actively avoid both? There are three possible explanations. One, business leaders may be lying. Two, they may be stupid. Three, they may not understand creativity. Let's consider each of these possibilities to see which is most likely the case.

Are Business Leaders Lying?

It is possible that business leaders are lying about their desperation for creativity. For some nefarious reason, they say they want creative employees and their ideas, yet they really do not. But, if this is the case, we need again to ask "Why?" Why would leaders lie about their desire for creativity? I can find no rational answer to that. Can you? Claiming to want creative people and ideas when you knowingly do not want either can only lead to trouble as creative people come knocking at your door with their ideas and curricula vitae (CV). Why would a business leader invite that kind of interruption if she does not want it? Most business leaders already have too many people knocking at their doors and sending their CVs.

Are Business Leaders Stupid?

It is possible that business leaders are stupid; that the Dilbert cartoon strip and The Office television show reflect accurately the lack of intelligence of senior managers in most companies. But, I do not believe this is true. It takes intelligence to manage a medium to large corporation successfully and managers who drive their businesses to bankruptcy are unlikely to stay employed long.

Do Business Leaders Fail to Understand Creativity?

This leaves us with the possibility that business leaders simply fail to understand creativity. I believe this to be the case for three reasons. Firstly, creativity has often been portrayed as a Boolean thing. In other words you either have creativity or you do not have creativity. An idea is either creative or it is not. Creativity is either on or off. Secondly, creativity is often presented as an easy, positive thing with no side effects or downsides. Once you have creative people on the payroll and invest in some idea management software, creative ideas will come rolling in and they can be implemented risk free − leading to increased profits and everyone living happily ever after. Thirdly, creative employees are perceived as smiling, conforming, non-disruptive people who fit right in and come up with clever ideas on command, like well trained and groomed dogs.

The truth, of course, is more complicated than that.

Creativity Is a Spectrum

Creativity consultants love to say everyone is creative. This is true, of course, but some people are only a tiny bit creative and a few are extremely creative and most people fall somewhere in the middle. Likewise, ideas are often called creative. But a creative idea could be a slight improvement on something that already exists or it can be mind-blowingly original or it can fall somewhere between those two extremes. We talk of creativity as if it either exists or it does not exist. The truth is, creativity is a spectrum ranging from non-creative to brilliantly creative. Creative people sit on a spectrum from idea challenged to overactive imagination and possibly insane.

Risk Correlation

There is a strong correlation between how creative an idea is and how risky an idea is. The first Star Wars film was very creative and very risky. Science fiction was not a popular medium in the 1970s and science fiction films of the time were very different from Star Wars. The film's special effects cost a bundle and, if Star Wars had flopped, the studio would have lost a lot of money and George Lucas probably would have been out of a job.

Of course, it was not a failure. It was a massive success. As a result, Mr Lucas decided to make sequels. These were less risky than the first film. The Star Wars formula had been established and a huge audience loved it. Future films could reuse the popular characters, stick to the formula, develop the story and would probably succeed. These films would not have the impact of the original. They would probably not generate the revenues of the original. But they would probably not fail. The sequels were much less risky than the original. But they were also less creative.

Likewise, the original iPhone was very creative and very risky. It was entirely possible that people would not want smartphones with touch screens. Customers might have found them too big or inconvenient or too expensive. However, the iPhone concept did succeed. Spectacularly.

Samsung's first smartphone included changes and improvements on the original iPhone, but it was not nearly as creative as the first iPhone. Likewise, it was not so risky. A market for smartphones had been established and demonstrated.

Risk, like creativity, is a spectrum and it is a spectrum that is strongly correlated to creativity. Look at any big, creative idea in business and you will see that its implementation was fraught with risk. Business leaders tend to be averse to risk. Small ideas, on the other hand, tend to be low risk, something business leaders prefer.

Change Correlation

Along with risk, there is also a correlation between creativity and change. The iPhone involved lots of change for Apple, which until then had not manufactured telephones, as well as their customers. Apple needed to design the iPhone from scratch, hire people with mobile phone technology expertise, redesign production processes, collaborate with telecommunications providers, design new packaging, create new marketing, prepare their store owners for the new product and more. That is a massive investment. Had the iPhone failed, it would have been spectacularly expensive.

Moreover, the iPhone's success required that Mobile phone users learn how to use a new kind of telephone. They needed to learn about apps, how to use them and how to download them. They needed to learn how to swipe the screen. They needed to be more careful. Old style telephones are more likely to survive falls than are smartphones. The cracked screen on my Smartphone is testament to that!

And this is a problem with creativity: the correlation with change and risk. Most people, and especially senior managers whose jobs and remuneration are dependent upon results, do not like high levels of change and risk. That's okay if you do not want high levels of creativity. However, you cannot have super, mind-bogglingly creative ideas that are risk free and involve little change.

How many businesses would be willing to take such a huge risk with a radical new product? Not many. But once the product is established, lots of businesses are willing to invest a little bit of creativity and launch products inspired by the radical new one. Think of all the smartphones on the market today. 

However, it seems that most business leaders want lots of creativity with little risk or change. This is not possible. It is like looking for a sugary and rich chocolate cake that is not fattening. You either need to reduce the sugar and fat or be willing to ingest a lot of calories with little nutritional value.

Creative People and Status Quo Divergence

Creativity in people also exists on a spectrum. Some people find it very difficult to devise creative ideas and when they do, their ideas are not that inspiring. Others are fountains of creativity. They have ideas all the time. They write novels, compose music or devise radical new product ideas on a regular basis. Most people are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

As a rule of thumb, the more creative a person is, the more she diverges from the status quo. Proposing a creative idea requires that you reject an aspect of the status quo and propose something you believe is better. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, he had to reject the notion that mobile telephones needed keyboards and are primarily for telephone calling. When George Lucas wrote and directed Star Wars, he had to reject the status quo on science fiction films in the 1960s and 1970s.

The problem is, most people (low to moderate levels of creativity) like the status quo and become uncomfortable with actions that force them to diverge from the status quo.

Diverging from the status quo results in behaviours that include questioning established ideas, rejecting current ways of doing things and rebelliousness. Highly creative people may refuse to follow your dress code, question insecure managers in public and reject your established processes in favour of their own methods. They may not be team players and may be team provocateurs. Their ideas will not always be brilliant. In fact, many will be daft. They will behave differently than other employees and will surely have a different background than other people in their divisions. They can be hard to manage.

And, this correlation between an individual's creativity and her divergence from the status quo is a problem for leaders who tend to want people to fit in on their teams, not rebel and not reject processes that are important to the leader's organisation. Business leaders seem to want people who are highly creative, but who do not diverge much from the status quo. Again, this is not possible. An individual cannot be blindingly accepting of the status quo and have big, bold, game-changing ideas. Indeed, you cannot change the game without rejecting the existing game.

Leaders Need to Find the Right Balance

It seems that the problem is that leaders are looking for the impossible: highly creative ideas that are low risk and do not involve change; and creative geniuses who pretty much conform to the status quo. I believe a better approach would be for leaders to accept that creativity and creative people exist on spectrums and those spectrums include correlations to negative things like risk, change and status quo divergence. Instead of seeking creative employees, a leader should determine what mix of creative thinking and status quo divergence she wants. At the same time, she needs to work out what level of creativity she wants in her organisation along with what level of risk and change she is willing to accept. In most cases, she will want high levels of creativity and low levels of risk and change. So, she will need to make compromises. Fortunately, that compromise need not be fixed in stone. If a leader finds that she and her team learn to accept risk and change, she can increase the level of creativity she encourages.

Likewise, if the leader hires a couple of non-conformists, makes the effort to fit them into the company and successfully implements their ideas, she may decide she can hire more people with higher levels of creativity.

In summary, business leaders need to stop saying how much they desire creativity in their companies and start saying how much creativity they desire in their companies. When they start doing this, creativity will blossom at a comfortable level.




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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey