ArLyne's Diamonds

A running commentary of ideas

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Managing for Creativity

When I met with 50 C-level executives to learn about how they managed creativity I spent between two and five hours with each of them having them answer an extensive open-ended interview questionnaire I’d designed. They thanked me for the opportunity to discuss the issues and said that just by the process of interacting with me about the topic they’d learned much and were going to implement some changes in their organizations.

For purposes of the research I created operational definitions of innovation, creativity, and the creative environment. Briefly – creativity is the process, innovation is the product and the creative environment allows for the freedom to experiment and play. The actual definitions in the questionnaire are more detailed.

My respondents wanted creativity everywhere in their organizations – although they certainly didn’t want people to necessarily make process improvement changes without going through a clearing process. 

On the other hand, rarely was there a process in place that allowed for process improvement or other creative suggestions to come forth. The reward and recognition systems in most of these companies were based on quantity of output and didn’t allow for experimentation or new ideas.

Managers and HR personnel were blamed for stifling creativity throughout the organization. However, as has been pointed out to me during the Reason Weekend presentation of this topic (thanks to my friend Carolyn Gannon) managers are working under constraints to meet their production assignments and are thereby forced to keep their workers working as previously assigned.

Although Carolyn is correct, in addition to the constraints placed on managers and therefore on the people they manage – there is also fear of change, of allowing someone to color outside the lines, of the talented newcomer taking their job, etc. 

Two examples from my research:  
  • A new President was brought out to run the west coast branch of an international insurance call center. Among his staff were about 50 telephone operators, responsible for customer service and responding to customer queries. This President decided that there needed to be changes to make working conditions better, improve morale and increase customer satisfaction. He set up a “Suggestion Box” and asked his management team to review the suggestions and bring him the good ones. Over a period of several months, no “good ones” were ever brought to his attention. When he questioned his managers he was told that none of the ones reviewed were worthwhile. He didn’t believe it was possible to not receive any good ideas and so asked to see all suggestions that had come in – and personally reviewed them and all further new suggestions. There were many wonderful ones that he implemented – and for which he rewarded the person making the suggestion.
  • A General Manager of a division of a huge semiconductor company told me that he and his team could not trust their Human Resource Department to bring them good candidates.  After much frustration the GM demanded that all resumes be brought to him. HR sorted the resumes, giving the GM those they thought most worthy on top. Over time he discovered that the better candidates were on the bottom of the pile – and from that time forward, he and his management team always reviewed the resumes from the bottom up. HR was sorting by the strictest definition in the job descriptions.

I’ve many other examples of the stifling of creativity – rather than encouraging it. Some of this comes about, as Dilbert so clearly teaches us, by living in cubes. Other problems arise because of the misappropriation of time, funds, and rewards. 

We need to establish a climate of creativity – an environment in which there is room for experimentation and new ideas to emerge, be talked about and tested.

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