Taming creativity

The Globe & Mail
December 24, 2003

Taming creativity
There are ways to foster innovation without tossing
productivity out the window, writes Lola Rasminsky

Have you ever met an aging bachelor who insists that all he wants in life is a wife and family, but when confronted with a realistic prospect, runs for the hills? Like this gentleman, many companies that talk about the need for innovation very quickly turn cold when asked to make a real commitment.

Most chief executive officers today would agree that their companies need to innovate in order to keep a competitive edge. They understand innovation to be creativity applied to producing new value in the marketplace. Yet, in many organizations, senior managers are afraid to place too great an emphasis on creative thinking.

Why would they fear the very thing that could save them?

Being creative means taking risks, seeing new possibilities, not feeling bound by traditional ways of solving problems, and often breaking long-standing rules. A creative thinker can question basic assumptions and turn conventional thinking upside down.

In today’s workplace, people are constantly being asked to adapt to new technologies, new working groups and new types of projects. This situation requires their minds to be nimble and open — the very qualities that creativity training sharpens. Yet many executives do not want an innovative culture they can no longer manage — or control.

The dilemma is that creative thinking is both necessary for survival and a potentially subversive force.

Are there times when creative thinking is simply inappropriate? This is like asking whether children who express themselves by writing on the walls should be stopped. Of course they should.

Both children and adults can comfortably learn that they are still valued as creative people even when limits are placed on their self-expression.

For much of the time, management needs its people to be onside, not offering challenges or alternative directions. The creative attitude of constantly questioning can be inappropriate and counterproductive. There are certainly times when the values of innovation and productivity can collide.

How then can we strike the delicate balance of encouraging creativity, but not too much of it?

On the control side, everyone in the company must understand that creative thinking should propel the business to realize its strategic goals. There are a couple of ways to achieve that:

Make sure that every employee understands where the company is going and that these goals do not change from month to month. This requires refining, committing to and communicating the vision of the organization to everyone who works there.

Make clear what the budgetary constraints of the company are so that people will police themselves accordingly. If people can be encouraged to take responsibility and motivation upon themselves by embracing the values and aspirations of the company, they will not want to waste time pursuing possibilities that lead in another direction. They will know that ideas should be pursued only if they are useful, not simply intriguing.

In the effort to manage creative output, managers must be careful not to undermine creative thinking and shut people down. Here are some guidelines for keeping the creative spirit alive:

Find ways to engage the imagination and passions of the employees so that their motivation comes from within. This means understanding who your employees really are — what are their interests and skill sets — and then matching them up with work that will challenge them.

Build a trusting and flexible team that will be supportive enough to deal with inevitable setbacks and unexpected demands. A team that includes people from diverse backgrounds is more likely to spark truly original thinking.

Recognize that creative thinking is not just about “big” new product ideas. There’s always a better way of doing a job. Original thinking can be applied to building trust, dealing with conflict, changing company structures and refining processes. The company’s strategic goals must always remain the driving force.

Give people the freedom and resources to think innovatively, where and when it is required. It is not enough to say “Go innovate.” Innovative thinkers must feel supported, not just financially, but they must be allowed to fail in order to learn. It’s almost as valuable to find out what doesn’t work as to find out what does. Managers need to come to terms with the unfortunate reality that this process takes time.

Recognize that what motivates people is feeling valued for their efforts, not just for their successes. Managers need to acknowledge how important their employees’ work is to the organization. We all need to feel that what we do matters — and that we matter as well.

There is a time and place for everything, including creative ideas. For leaders to feel comfortable fostering an ecosystem that nurtures innovation, they will need to be sure that the people who work for the company are committed to achieving the company’s goals. With this trust established, they must listen carefully and keep a true space open for different ideas. Deep commitment from all parties builds an energy base for creativity and productivity.

Like our putative bachelor, with a little bit of trust a company can overcome the fear of the unknown and take a chance on a richer and more expansive world.

Lola Rasminsky is the director of a Toronto training program for executives that encourages them to “think like artists.”