Are You Encouraging Creativity or Compliance?

The Guaranteed Innovation Never Happens.

“Recent years have shown a growing preoccupation with the circumstances surrounding the creative act and a search for the ingredients that promote creativity,” wrote Charles Eames. “This preoccupation in itself suggests that we are in a special kind of trouble — and indeed we are.”

A friend had a new product idea the other day. He found a way we could leverage a new material to increase the life of a key component. It was a good idea. It had real promise. And he didn’t plan on moving forward with it.

When I asked him why not, he said that the moment he brings it up, he’ll need to develop a schedule. He’ll need to guarantee a positive cost-benefit. He’ll need to report on his progress each week and go through the ringer over every minor delay or unexpected event.

He looked at me as if I was crazy and asked, “Why would I sign myself up for that punishment?”

Why indeed?

“People do what they do because of what happens to them when they do it.” — Aubrey Daniels, Bringing Out the Best in People

One of my coworkers was a true source for inspiration. Raised by a single mother, he worked multiple jobs through high school to help support her and his three younger brothers. After graduating high school, he continued to support his family while obtaining an engineering degree. He would go on to start his own charity, mentor under-privileged kids, author a book, and raise a beautiful family of his own.

That’s what he did outside of work. At work, he processed forms.

He was an inspiration. But only if you looked at what he accomplished outside of work. At work, he was merely another cog in the machine.

This isn’t a one-off story. People are amazing. They’re creative. They accomplish great things every day. You only need to look around to see the initiative and leadership that people demonstrate on a daily basis.

Yet most of this seems to happen outside of work. Instead of leveraging these strengths, or doing our best to build on them, we convince people to leave these traits at home.

Show up. Process forms. That’s enough.

Marie Bullock wrote, “Life would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition,” in defending E.E. Cummings. And while most of us would agree with this sentiment, our actions at work don’t support it. Experimenters and breakers-with-tradition lead to inefficiency and uncertainty. Our systems reward the opposite.

There’s a term in Australia called the tall poppy syndrome. The poppy that rises above the group is the one that’s cut. Don’t stand up or stand out. You’re likely to get cut down.

What constitutes the majority of management conversations in your company? Do they track status or help people overcome barriers? Do they focus on second-guessing decisions or enabling more influence? Do they push compliance or inspire people to accomplish more?

If the majority of attention goes toward punishing noncompliance, why would anyone take on a new challenge?

“There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.” — Stuart Firestein, Ignorance: How it Drives Science

In 1928, a Scottish biologist failed to clean up his lab before leaving for vacation. When he came back, he found a number of his bacteria cultures covered in mold. Before throwing them out, he noticed that in one dish, the mold had destroyed the bacteria.

Now imagine one of your employees brought you this proposal. He wants to cancel his existing project to watch fungus grow on bread and cheese for a while. No, he doesn’t know where this will go. No, it’s not a part of his original schedule. No, he can’t guarantee that he’ll have a return for next quarter.

In most companies, he’d be back to growing bacteria cultures by the end of the week. He’d probably need to write a critique on his poor cleanliness habits as well.

Fortunately, Alexander Fleming didn’t have an overzealous micromanager. He didn’t have someone holding him to all of the rules. He would go on to develop penicillin and save the lives of millions of people.

Another of your employees wants to sift through tons of African ore, looking for small particles that she believes will glow in the dark. The guy that never graduated high school wants to find invisible magic rays to show us our skeletons. And that employee who can’t get along with his colleagues now wants to better understand why fruit falls to the ground.

How many managers would authorize these projects?

No one could offer guaranteed results. No one had a defined project plan. In most of our companies, none of these projects would ever get off the ground.

Yet Marie Curie’s work in discovering radium and polonium yielded great strides in cancer therapy, Roentgen’s efforts to discover x-rays have revolutionized medical diagnosis, and Newton developed laws that drove advances in everything from the Industrial Revolution to space flight. Many of the advances that characterize the world came from those who couldn’t offer guarantees, didn’t have foolproof plans, and relied on the freedom to follow their curiosity.

The guaranteed innovation never happens. The prescribed experiment isn’t an experiment. In short, if you can’t fail, then it doesn’t count.

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind

Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

- Signs, The 5 Man Electrical Band

The park by my house doesn’t allow birthday parties. I’m not sure what led to this rule. Do you think that a few kid’s parties got out of control and terrorized the neighborhood? Or were a bunch of local bureaucrats just drunk on their own power?

I once reviewed a supplier that prescribed everyone’s email format. They specified font, size, color, and structure. Thankfully, their employees no longer had to worry about rainbow-colored Helvetica messages. Or maybe someone in HR just had too much time on his hands.

Ask someone what they’re not allowed to do and they can usually give you a list. They know these items well. Their performance is based on avoiding all of those items that they’re not allowed to do.

Now ask someone what they’re allowed to do. This list is tougher to come by. It’s not something people know because it rarely relates to their performance. Showing initiative and maximizing value is a distant second to following requirements.

In our zeal to remove risk, we’ve sacrificed far more. With every push to exert more control, we discourage people from taking initiative.

We all have two models to drive performance. We can try to guarantee success through rules and requirements. Or we can give people the freedom to make a real difference.

Which one do you think will have a bigger impact? Better question: Which company would you rather be a part of?

“Creativity is not a talent. It is an operating system.” — John Cleese

Fifty years ago, George Land created a test for NASA to better identify innovative engineers and scientists. He then used it to test creativity levels for 1,600 five-year old children. As the group aged, he tested them again. The results went from 98% for 5-year-olds to 30% for 10-year-olds, and 12% for 15-year-olds.

Even more depressing? Across 280,000 adults, the average creativity score was 2%.

We often look to experts and leaders for instruction on how to be creative. We tend to think that if we only knew what to do, we’d do it.

But there’s no shortage of knowledge on what to do. Creativity isn’t complicated. Innovation isn’t complex. Five-year-olds can figure it out.

People already know what to do. We just need to get out of their way and let them do it.

I might be a top writer. It depends on the week.

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