Tag Archives: creativity

Constructed, Tested, Adopted

“Easy to answer the negative, more difficult to answer the positive,” I repeated. “In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

“I remember reading something from a long time ago, about a company that had something called skunkworks,” Susan was thinking. “It was still inside the company, not really a secret, but hidden away somewhere.”

Lockheed Martin, America’s first jet fighter,” I explained. “Why do you think it was hidden away, not a secret, but out of sight?”

“They were probably experimenting with things where they did not know the outcome and the probability of failure was high. My guess is that, when there were failures, no one knew about it, so nobody got fired.”

“Exactly, the probability of failure was high, so the skunkworks were separated from operations, there was no real impact, no downside consequences. So, if the probability of failure was high, why did the company tolerate it?”

Now, Susan smiled. “Because the possibility of upside was substantial. And, they had to work all the kinks out of the ideas. There were likely failures along the way, but the company minimized the risk while they were making headway.”

I repeated my question, “In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

What’s Stopping Innovation?

Susan looked down, her face long in frustration.

“You look at creative ideas,” I said. “I look at context. I have to acknowledge your frustration at the lack of progress in your journey of innovation. Let me re-frame my observations with a forward looking question. In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

“I am not sure where you are going with this,” Susan responded.

“Let’s assume your creative ideas have merit. What conditions exist in your company that resist the construction, testing and adoption of new ideas?”

“Now, that’s an easy question to answer,” Susan chuckled through her frustration. “There is a long list –

  • We already tried that before and it didn’t work?
  • It’s too expensive.
  • It will take too long.
  • The last person with an idea like that got fired.
  • We are headed in exactly the opposite direction and we have too much sunk costs to change direction now, even though what we are doing isn’t working.

“Nice list,” I smiled. “It’s always easy to answer the negative, now let’s answer the positive. In what way can we create the conditions where creative ideas can be constructed, tested and adopted?”

Possibility for Creativity

“When I look at my company,” Susan said, “many times I see the stifling of creativity and innovation, often in the same sentence extolling the virtues that are being trampled.”

“How so?” I asked.

“We have some initiative suggested by a consultant, process improvement,” she said. “We spend a couple of off-site days banging our collective heads together to come up with ideas to make things more efficient. We chew up a couple pads of flip-chart paper, posted on the wall, everyone high-fiving.”

“And?” I asked, looking for the other shoe to drop.

“And two weeks later, nothing has changed. We are still doing things the same way, suffering the same consequences.”

“Do you personally believe creativity and innovation are important,” I pressed.

“Of course,” Susan replied. “We had some great ideas, it’s just that nothing seems to happen.”

“Sometimes, ideas are not enough, intentions are not enough, even first steps are not enough,” I replied. “Sometimes, it’s the context in which these ideas sit. It is the surrounding conditions that serve to resist new momentum, change. We are seldom wanting for creative and innovative ideas, it is creating the conditions for those ideas to flourish. Sometimes, it is difficult to create the conditions for those ideas to even be possible.”

Structure and Creativity – Part II

From the Ask Tom mailbag-

This continues my response to the following question –

Question:
In your model, whose job is it to balance structure and innovation? (or structure that permits innovation?) How is this implemented? Is it a time span issue vs. a creativity/mindset issue? I worry about calcification and lean against structure which prevents innovation.

Response:
It is easy to fear organizational calcification. Much of management literature rails against terminology about command and control, even the subtle reporting relationship reeks iron fists and thumbs of oppression. This is why our understanding of functional organizational structure is so important. And important to you because of your interest, mandate that an organization be creative.

I define work narrowly looking at two things, decision making and problem solving. This discussion is to firmly attach creativity to decision making and problem solving, within the confines of a structure that eschews rigidity.

First, an exercise, in creativity. I ask a group of student within a 60-second period to name (write down) things that are round, as many as possible in 60-seconds. That’s the goal. You would assume those that name 30 are more creative than those that name six. I immediately get a question, “do you mean round and flat like a coin or round like a sphere?” I say, “there are no rules, no restrictions, it’s up to your own definition.” There is no structure to the exercise save the limit of time.

Inevitably, the clock winds down and most participants have a list of six to eight and most have a look of frustration on their face that they performed so dismally. I ask for sample responses –

  • ball
  • coin
  • planet
  • wheel
  • manhole cover
  • marble
  • watchface

Stop, time’s up!

Remember, the goal is to be as creative as possible and name as many as possible. I say, “ball. What about a tennis ball? A baseball? A basketball?”

“Wait, that’s cheating,” the group responds. I smile.

Here is the point. Instead of instructions where there is no structure, let me create a structure that guides you to be more creative.

Name as many coins that are round –

  • penny
  • nickel
  • dime
  • quarter
  • 50-cent piece
  • silver dollar
  • gold dubloon

Name as many planets that are round –

  • Mercury
  • Venus
  • Mars
  • Neptune
  • Uranus
  • Jupiter
  • Earth
  • Saturn

Name as many balls that are round –

  • tennis ball
  • baseball
  • basketball
  • bowling ball
  • golf ball
  • volleyball
  • cricket ball
  • soccer ball

The more structure in the assignment, the more creative, the more possibilities. This is a concept called idea fluency.

I need you to shift your understanding (not change, just shift) about organizational structure where we create working relationships between people where they engage in work using the fullest extent of their capability to make decisions and solve problems.

Elliott’s model helps us understand that there are different levels of decision making and different levels of problem solving. It is incumbent on every manager to understand those levels and engage the fullest capability of their team members in the work at hand.

Placing accountability for team output at the feet of the manager dramatically shifts managerial behavior to create more productive and creative working environments.

Are There Limits to Creativity?

“I think we need to create a circle,” Russell explained.

“What’s a circle?” I asked.

“I was reading about this new management thing called holacracy. It’s a group of people in the company who get together to solve a problem,” he replied.

“Why do you call it a circle, rather than a project team?” I wanted to know.

“A project team is too limiting. It stifles thought. This circle would be free to think in brand new ways, without limits,” Russell smiled at his new idea.

“So, if the circle thought the best way to solve a problem would be by embezzling a million dollars from the company checking account by submitting phony invoices, that would be okay?” I queried.

Russell chuckled. “Aw, come on. That would never happen.”

“So, there are some limits to the solutions?”

“Well, yes, but I want the circle to be free to be creative,” Russell insisted.

“But, just to be clear. The circle (project team) would have discretionary judgement within limits?” I looked straight at Russell.

Russell was quiet for a moment. “I suppose so,” he relented.