Creativity: Should the ‘mediocre middle’ be kept inside the box?

Can we all be creative given the right circumstances or is creativity the preserve of a few naturally talented people? It’s an important question for organisations. If it’s the former, you foster an environment where people are given as much freedom and stimulus as possible. If it’s the latter, you recruit highly creative people and keep everyone else in their boxes.

There’s little doubt where Philip Delves Broughton stands. Most of us, he says, are average. The job of managers is, therefore, to manage the mediocre middle, get as much out of them as they can and stop them from trying to be too creative.

Managing the middle is best done with what might be called the Serenity approach, after the prayer recited at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change/ Courage to change the things I can/ and wisdom to know the difference.”

This idea has been appropriated by various management experts, notably Stephen Covey, who served it up as his two circles of control and influence. There are things you can control (the inner circle), things you can influence (the outer circle) and beyond these, what must be left to fate or the actions of others.

I’ve also seen this method used as a tool to hush the mediocre middle into silence. At one major technology company, employees are told that the moment they venture beyond their circle of direct control, they risk personal embarrassment and may be wasting other people’s time. If they try to influence what is completely beyond them, they are showing a sackable lack of self-knowledge and respect for the company and their hierarchical betters. This is intended to keep the middle focused and spare senior managers having to fend off endless half-baked ideas and requests.

Up to a point, I can see what he’s on about here. I worked in a company that had a lot of clever people in it and one of the first things I noticed about it was that people were always busy, even when commercial work was slack. Why? Because they found stuff to do. If things tailed off they started working on their own pet projects and initiatives. True, a few of these ideas led to new thinking and a tiny number eventually became commercially exploitable products. For the most part, though, these projects were, as one of my colleagues put it, just bright people going off on one.

That said, I did some work with a technology company some years ago which encouraged this sort of behaviour. The place felt as much like an academic institution as a commercial firm. People in white coats wafted about wearing serious expressions, deep in thought. The first meeting I had with one of the directors reminded me of a tutorial with one of the tweedy lecturers at university. He made me a coffee, once he had dug out the cups and cafetière from under a pile of papers.

Everyone in the firm had their own pet theories. They were all working on side of the desk projects. The firm not only tolerated this but gave people the space to do it. The senior managers knew that much of it would be commercially unviable but believed that in there, somewhere, might be the next big thing. It also acted as a retention and motivation tool. The firm needed people to be creative. Cutting them slack to pursue their ideas was more cost-effective than paying them big salaries and bonuses.

It seemed to work, as the company did develop some very innovative products. It’s completely different to the approach described by Philip Delves Broughton, where, rather than encouraging people to think outside the box, employees are told to stay inside it or risk punishment.

I’ve never come across anything quite as blunt as this. As I said in Monday’s post, there are various ways that managers can stifle innovation but most of them are inexplicit. It’s rare for a firm to say, “Here is your circle. Step outside it at your peril.”

It is certainly an unusual approach and it’s difficult to say too much either for or against it without knowing the context. But perhaps it just makes explicit what a lot of firms do anyway. It might be fairer and more productive to tell people what their boundaries are and the limits of their scope for creativity, rather than quietly, undermining them, ignoring them or putting subtle obstacles in their way. All the same, I can’t help wondering if the firm in question might be missing something. It can be annoying when people keep coming up with hare-brained schemes but, in amongst all the flights of fancy, there might just be a gem of an idea.

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8 Responses to Creativity: Should the ‘mediocre middle’ be kept inside the box?

  1. Pingback: Creativity: Should the ‘mediocre middle’ be kept inside the box? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. This whole post would be moot if the organisations in question put more effort into building a sense of common purpose. It’s only when folks within an organisation have little or no sense of common purpose that they’re likely to “go off on one”. Absent shared purpose, all manner of means may be necessary to stop folks from wasting their time – and the time of others.

    – Bob

  3. Agree with Bob’s comments. I think perhaps the question is misleading – “Can we all be creative given the right circumstances or is creativity the preserve of a few naturally talented people?”.

    We are born creative and everyone stays creative. To be put in a position where you can’t be creative is almost literally a prison sentence.

    The issue for organisations is “do we have people who can innovate & create what we need to succeed”. This is where Bob’s point on purpose starts to ring loud for me. It’s up to organisational leadership to be explicit about “what they think they need” and “what they think they don’t need” but to always leave the door open (just!) for the “what we didn’t know we needed but actually do”. The best do this well in my opinion.

    [It’s just popped into my head but perhaps the Johari window has some relevance with regards to leadership fostering creativity in the context of need?!?!]

  4. B.O. Locks says:

    Perhaps we could run the political system on similar ideas? Average people would have no vote or say; only clever people who understand things would vote or govern. A pleb voicing an opinion could be disciplined, perhaps with a term in prison. Nip it in the bud, I say. If you allow people to think and voice independently then why, they may get smart. They would then start challenging their place in Society and the social and economic conditions that have been assigned to them by their betters. God forbid!

  5. Tone says:

    Surely in most organisations, both in the Public & Private Sectors, there’s always been a physical or virtual ‘suggestion box’ tucked away somewhere in a dark corner. All except the most conceited top down authoritarian culture has room for improvement and the management & leadership of these should be open to new ideas. Even the aforementioned exception should be improved though probably won’t admit it!

    I recall hearing the late John Harvey-Jones saying that, even when he was heading up ICI, it was worth spending time with the switchboard staff to hear what problems the customers were phoning in about and their ideas about improvements.

    The very idea of ‘sackable’ ideas outside one’s circle seem like out-dated dictatorialism of the worst kind.

  6. Indy Neogy says:

    Lots of things to say on this (sorry), so here’s another mammoth comment:

    1) Sorry to play the man first, before the ball, but it needs noting that PDB speaks very stridently, but he doesn’t appear to have a lot of experience of working in the kind of roles he is talking about. Bureau-chief for a newspaper in foreign cities isn’t a major people management position. That makes me suspicious of his examples, because we know that few organisations are merely the sum of the formal rules.

    2) He starts from an important reality which is often ignored – most firms cannot meaningfully change the average quality of their employees. Highly creative tech startups are a bad model for an average business because they can “hire the best” and those people may need handling in a different way.

    He then, in my view, takes the ball and runs in almost exactly the wrong direction. If you can’t get better people in, to get a business advantage out of your staff, you need to manage them better than the competition.

    In PDB’s view, the way to do that is to reduce most people to cogs in a machine who do what they are told. (Of course, he may have more nuanced views outside of a newspaper column.)

    Counter-example would most simply be the Nissan plant in Sunderland. Here we have a business that is pretty mature and vanilla. It’s too big to claim that they are unaffected by the problem of “the middle.” Yet the foundation of the impressive ongoing productivity gains is the ability of managers to harness the creativity of the whole workforce.

    Philosophically, what we know about bounded knowledge and information suggests that restricting creativity increases your chances of being outdone by a company who does otherwise.

    Of course, it’s harder work managing the creativity of the “mediocre middle” – dealing with distractions – than to just put them in a box. This can be reframed as a tradeoff, which PDB does, saying “there are more important things to do than pan for gold in a welter of useless ideas.” To me this represents either a firm in a very safe industry or a firm ripe for being upset by both more ingenious and more cost-effective competitors. It also represents a firm that has little clue about ways to manage ideas.

    3) A few things worth noting about this philosophy – if you’re going to engage the creativity of your whole workforce, lots of things are needed, including training/support to help them be more usefully creative, proper training for managers in how to deal with ideas and a commitment to improving both your products and your business.

    Further none of this removes the need for an R&D/Innovation/New Products department. It’s a complement, not a replacement.

    Finally a short word on creativity – it is a skill as much as a talent. We fail our whole population by not teaching them more creativity techniques. Worth noting that many “hierarchical betters” in many organisations are not very creative – and this may explain the stagnation in many large companies.

  7. Pingback: If the middle is mediocre, why does politics strive so hard to encompass it? »

  8. samlizars says:

    When I first read this post a couple of days ago, my gut response was ‘No. That’s just silly.’ I thought that probably wasn’t a very worthy response though, and wanted to spend some time thinking it through.

    I’ve considered it now, but I really can’t get past ‘That’s just silly’. Why on earth would a company spend any energy or time trying to *stop* its employees from being creative. Creativity breeds resourcefulness, efficiency and plain old good ideas. If you have people willing to contribute these even though their job title says they’re not paid to do so then congratulations – jackpot!

    If people are actually neglecting to do their jobs because they’re being too dreamy (unusual) then they need to be managed just like any under-performer. As others have pointed out though, that’s not about preventing creativity, its about ensuring focus.

    I’d quite like a chat with Philip Delves Broughton about this. I feel like I must be missing something.

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