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Friday, April 07, 2020

How to Kill Creativity

Most organizations claim they value creative, innovative people; yet many operate in ways guaranteed to limit, block or destroy whatever creativity their people have. The culprit is the fashionable, hard-driving, "results are all that matters" style of leadership. Here's how—and why—it happens.



Sara is head of department. Like all the other department heads, she's had to cut staffing levels, reduce costs every year and still meet increased performance targets. It's a large, busy department and her people, she knows, are tired, disheartened, over-stretched and close to burnout. At least three of the best performers, to her knowledge, are actively looking for jobs elsewhere. Now she's hearing rumors her department's function might be next on the list for outsourcing. She's harassed, constantly busy (at her desk before 7:30 a.m.—rarely leaves before 8:00 p.m.) and still desperate to justify her reputation as a high achiever.

One of her subordinates wants her to authorize a risky, though undeniably creative, change of direction that might make billions—or turn out to be an expensive, time-wasting, crazy flop. What will Sara do?

Here's the most likely outcome. Like many managers in such a position, Sara hasn't the time or energy to evaluate the idea fully; she's already running behind and there are ten more immediate problems on her current to-do list. She listens with less than half her attention, notes the risk and jumps right to what have become the key questions: "How does this solve our current problems? What's the payoff? How much by when?" When the answer is this is a long-term project, with a huge potential but little in the way of quick returns (or immediate relevance to her to-do list), she kills it. She knows the organization won't support her, especially if anything goes wrong.

When pressure's intense, creativity is one of the first casualties. Fear of producing still more work, fear of censure and fear of losing face foster cultures that are risk-averse; together with an attitude that protecting your butt always takes precedence. People become too afraid—or too tired—to do more than stick with what they know and what's worked before. You can say goodbye to any possibility of outdistancing the competition through innovation.

Besides, in today's most typical culture, internal competition is more intense as job cuts proliferate and promotion prospects diminish. No one can afford to make mistakes. Mistakes cost results and time; they undermine your credibility; they're noted by those who control promotion, political influence and employment itself. Why risk any of these to back some unproven idea? "Making the numbers" gets you a pat on the back—more or less however you do it.

Time is already in such short supply in companies like that no one dares use any on innovation. They all go instead for the quick, obvious answer; the "done it before a thousand times" answer; the quick-fix. That new idea may be a winner—sometime in the future. But who looks that far ahead, when getting through the rest of today looks uncertain enough? Unless it comes with one of these adjectives attached—instant, quicker, simpler, cheaper, fail-safe—or fits the "get it done and move one" fashionable attitude, dump it right away.

Why do people act this way, when it's such obvious nonsense? Because (a) it seems the safest option, (b) that's what they've been taught to do, (c) that's what they believe the bosses want, and (d) they're too afraid to make any other decision.

Stress, tiredness, fear of risk and constant exposure to unreasonable demands paralyze people's willingness to make decisions—especially risky ones—since anything beyond obvious routine poses a personal risk. That's why managers try to protect themselves with ever more exhaustive analyses, approval procedures, consensus-building meetings, memos, e-mails and all the other time-devouring elements of bureaucratic defensiveness. Of course, long before all that political maneuvering is over, and everyone is sufficiently certain (read armor-plated) to decide, the data is out-of-date, the customers have changed their minds…and any competitive edge is long gone. How many promising ideas are tested and analyzed to death in the name of caution and practicality?

In pressure-based cultures, old ideas are continually re-hashed, new ones tested to destruction, and any spark of innovation drowned in consensus-building. An idea that can't be grasped in under five minutes by executives so distracted they can't recall the next meeting on today's schedule—or what was agreed at the last—is dead meat. There's no time to be wrong, so there's no time to be right either. Stick to what you've done before and get a move on. With such penalties for trying anything new, is it any wonder everyone quickly gets the message that, whatever fine words executives use, innovation isn't wanted or valued?

These high-pressure, "the bottom line is all there is" organizations don't simply shoot themselves in both feet; they use machine guns. Their attitude ensures no new ideas will survive, so they get further and further behind less macho, results-driven competitors. As a result, they must run still faster to stay in business at all; and so have even less tolerance or time for risky, creative ideas. The result is self-induced obsolescence, followed by commercial suicide. Look at the "established" US airlines. When did one of these last produce a fresh idea to counter their new, risky, low-cost competitors? The best they can do is copy them—usually long after whatever they're copying is past its sell-by date.

Slowing down, making time and space for innovation and its inevitable mistakes and false starts, isn't just a better idea. It's the only idea that works if you want to be around for the long term.

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20 Comments:

Anonymous said...

This is so true. Innovation is punished as being a time waster. You have to stay well below the radar to bring a change that gets you in front of the problem to fruition. That also means quantum leap can't be large and can't impact a "priority" process or it will get noticed. The Luddites pounce on any glitch as a reason the innovation is unworkable.

It is so true that innovations require nurture not competition. It is only once results are visible that support will be forthcoming. In a garden, you sow several seeds in each hole, then once they have sprouted, you thin them keeping the most promising. This must be tended, weeded and the soil cultivated to remove parasitic competition and promote the largest growth. Even so, the gardner doesn't depend on one plant, he sows a row of seeds knowing some will fail to germinate and bear fruit. The good gardner tries new varieties and rotates crops because the soil will eventually be depleted by monolithic crops.

Many, many companies these days keep planting the same crop on the same ground resulting lower yields as the nutrients deplete. Fighting to improve yields they refuse to allocate even the smallest patch to test new crops that might prove profitable. Instead, they work harder and harder for less and less.

Government bureaucracies are the worst. Fearing accountability and attacks by office rivals, they stifle anything doesn't promise to show total payoff in the current fiscal year. Then delay releasing funds and cut off expenditures early until there is only a few months to accomplish a years work and personnel are now fighting the latest fire. Thus guaranteeing failure in the form of a dried shell of the original idea. But to avoid accountability, the project is declared a success by altering expected outcome.

For all this you get lots of activity (rewarded), little accomplishment (ignored) and a continuation of the status quo. In business, you eventually fail but in government, you eventually get more funding. Because if only you had more funding, you could accomplish everything?

8:22 PM  
Brian Crosby said...

Sounds like what is happening in education. Business and some in the general public keep saying we need to change how schools do school fundamentally. But as soon as creativity or real change are tried or talked about the message changes to - we need to change schools fundamentally as long as when they are done changing they are pretty much the same as when I went to school so I will have the schema to understand why and how they are doing things. Hence schools have an uphill battle to change much or become more creative in their style.

1:21 PM  
Anonymous said...

Perhaps the problem is that many a company, corporation, or organization is much like any other living species. Evolution occurs in the next generation, not the current generation. In business, that next generation is the new enterprise that is born of the old.

If you find yourself frustrated by a group unable to embrace innovation and creativity, maybe you should lead those creative and innovative team members into a new company?

3:25 PM  
Anonymous said...

Perhaps the problem is that many a company, corporation, or organization is much like any other living species. Evolution occurs in the next generation, not the current generation. In business, that next generation is the new enterprise that is born of the old.

If you find yourself frustrated by a group unable to embrace innovation and creativity, maybe you should lead those creative and innovative team members into a new company?

3:44 PM  
Anonymous said...

I work for an organization that encourages and embarces creativity. I suggested a project for myself that would eventually save considerable time for sales people. When I showed a rough draft of what I wanted to accomplish I was told to go for it. It took the better part of a month and turned out to be exactly what I told my superiors it would be. They love it, I was commended, and off we go to another project. Sales people are rewarded for non-sales creativity. It goes beyond the numbers.

So what's the bottom line on all this creativity? Record breaking sales for 12 consecutive quarters. Be creative BEFORE you have to and you'll reap immediate rewards. Put it off until it's absolutely necessary and you'll forget how and won't have the time.

12:23 PM  
John O'Brien said...

We value what we measure, and unfortunately, organizations measure process, not outcomes, and retain a manufacturing era focus on bean counting time instead of a knowledge era focus on innovation and results.

Targeted to put 100 people through a workshop, reaching 101 "exceeds" the expectation for success. But, can they do anything with the content? Was it all just a day away from work (and therefore a net loss, not gain)? We can change that failure into success by sticking with the numbre count.

The challenge is to develop indicators and measures that encourage risk, creativity, innovation and improved (or new) outcomes.

8:11 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

What excellent comments!

We need to find change our assumptions and new ways to nurture creativty—and avoid the "bean counter" mentality. The trouble is, most of the best things in life (joy, friendship, love) and work (insight, creativity, satisfaction) can't be measured in conventional, numerical ways.

If we value only (or mostly) what we measure, we're likely to value the wrong things and get ourselves and our world out of balance.

9:07 PM  
Anonymous said...

I work for a largish publishing company, and this is all so true. Innovation is a time-waster. Add to the mix that seniority is very much alive in print, and innovation is also punished if you don't have seniority, and could be a ticket out the door if your supervisor is sufficiently pissed enough about your stepping outside the box, even if said "superior" could never in a million years have come with your idea on their own, and would have no intention of forwarding your idea lest you become a threat to their superior position.

Without fail, I have been punished for speaking up "out of turn," even when I've been asked a question directly. It's been stressed to me that I should never demonstrate any brain power whatsoever to anyone superior to me other than my direct superiors.

Don't worry, Web publishers, print will eat itself eventually.

8:48 PM  
Anonymous said...

As I see it, the organizational shortsightedness described in this article is largely due to our current financial markets. Public firms race four times a year to their respective quarterly earnings reports, and are directly rewarded for shortsighted bean counting. Even private firms, such as startups with their eye on going public someday, must hit quarterly targets to please investors and financial institutions. This problem is so pervasive in business because it starts at the top of an organization and trickles down through the chain of command.

10:57 PM  
Anonymous said...

In suggesting "An idea that can't be grasped in under five minutes by executives" is killed, my response is so it should be - a well considered idea should be easily and concisely communicated by the originator. One that takes longer to explain hasn't been fully assembled. In my experience, ideas that take a long time to implement are adopted but progress towards the end objective needs to be demonstrable and evidence that it remains relevant to a changing environment.

2:12 AM  
Michiel said...

"At least three of the best performers, to her knowledge, are actively looking for jobs elsewhere. Now she's hearing rumors her department's function might be next on the list for outsourcing. She's harassed, constantly busy (at her desk before 7:30 a.m.—rarely leaves before 8:00 p.m.) and still desperate to justify her reputation as a high achiever."

hey, if I was Sara I'd be looking for a new job. Good article.

4:28 AM  
Anonymous said...

The real problem is identified in the following confused comment:
In suggesting "An idea that can't be grasped in under five minutes by executives" is killed, my response is so it should be - a well considered idea should be easily and concisely communicated by the originator. One that takes longer to explain hasn't been fully assembled.

That kind of corporation is coasting--cashing in on one simple product for as long as possible, probably using every legal means to delay the inevitable death and minimize the number of competitors.

Most business advancements cannot be explained in a mere five minutes to average intelligence people. The only thing that can be accomplished in five minutes is to tickle a fancy.

Please, everyone running a business, please take more than five minutes to realize that you are making products with easily correctable flaws. After selling 100 million cars or computers or amything, the product should really work. Don't let me "customize" it by sticking on a piece of plastic, make it work by motivating and using the smart people who work for your company.

6:57 AM  
Anonymous said...

There are a few stories in american business that are corollaries to this, in the "Danger of Accountants" vein.
The general tenor is this: They're started by people who have a vision, are built up and then sold off to another company.
The visionaries eventually leave or retire. The acquirer sicks the Bean-Counters on the new subsidiary and wrings every last penny out of it. Eventually, product quality declines and the subsidiary either goes under or turns into a "dead brand".

For example, the car company Buick (yes, Buick) started out making race cars and used to hold some speed records. Aside from the Milan, Navigator, or Town Car, Lincoln or Mercury haven't done anything that wasn't a carbon-copy of a Ford product. Same story with Dodge, Chrysler, Plymouth.

Will, http://metavitae.com

6:22 PM  
Anonymous said...

There is one way out of this hole, and it is covered by an aphorism my mother used to tell me: "There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit"

This does work in getting new ideas into a group like the one mentioned, but unfortunately, you seldom get credit for them.

12:49 PM  
Subramaniyam said...

"We want innovation" is a slogan like - " gender equality or World Peace. At the end of the day, as some one said that if you have a great idea, don't speak about it! Lest it may be killed by your supervisors!! And one thing is important that innovation and creativity are traits, not written in books.

Subramaniyam Hyderabad

10:28 AM  
Vicki A. Davis said...

I believe this is also a problem in many American classrooms. In most schools students are not taught how to type and paper is favored over the incredible potential of blogging. Since I started my students blogging, I have seen incredible work unleashed because they view their audience as the world, and not just a teacher who will read it, mark it and move on! I think these principles apply to education very well and we have got to create students who can create in a world that is becoming so information/creativity driven!

9:37 AM  
zby said...

Another aspect of this is that creativity requires some playfullness and in a stressed out environment there is no room for play.

11:08 AM  
Olivier Blanchard said...

Holy cow! I worked for that kind of company for four years!!! Ugh... Flashbacks...

8:01 PM  
Anonymous said...

And there are some companies who tell you they value innovation and get you all excited during the interview process. But you later find out that they expect you to come up with innovative ideas at zero cost (no investments needed) and without sacrificing productivity! In other words, they are asking you to be Superman.

Peter - www.radicalhop.com/blog

4:10 AM  
Joel said...

Agreed! Not just biz but gvt and university bureacracies do the same. Kill the ideas before they can grow, so in the end, after all the BS and hype about "human resources development," all you have developed are a bunch of close-minded skeptics who can do nothing but tow the line.

I find the only release is to get creative through volunteer work. Life is too short for BS.

12:47 AM  

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