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.