Should We Teach Creativity or Just Stop Stifling It?

(Courtesy of Pexels via Pixabay)

“Because I said so” is not a reason. My kids shouldn’t (and often don’t) accept it. And neither should employees.

And most of us don’t want rote compliance. I want both my kids and my employees to challenge the status quo and find creative solutions. To challenge convention and push the limits of past practices.

I can want this all day long. But it’s all for naught if my actions don’t support it.

We Were All Creative Originally

In his TEDx talk, George Land discussed his experiences assessing creativity. He originally developed a test for NASA to better identify innovative engineers and scientists. When he later applied it to 1600 children, he found that 98% of five-year olds would be considered in the “genius category of imagination.” He then retested children at the age of ten and then again at fifteen. The results dropped from the original 98% to 30% (ten year olds) to 12% (fifteen year olds). And when the test was also given to over one million adults, the average score was 2%.

Perhaps we should worry less about teaching creativity and more about not teaching conformity.

I don’t know if there’s a sure-fire way to raise a creative child. Just as I don’t know a guaranteed method of building creativity into an organization. But I do know an easy way to stifle it. And it’s what we’re doing now.

Authority Loves Rules

“Because their positions speak of superior access to information and power, it makes great sense to comply with the wishes of properly constituted authorities. It makes so much sense, in fact, that we often do so when it makes no sense at all.” — Robert Cialdini, Influence

Too often, an unfortunate side effect of authority is a misplaced confidence in our own intelligence. When we know we’re right, we’re comfortable laying down rules. After all, we’re giving others the benefits of our knowledge.

And it’s often with the best of intentions. We want to help convey our knowledge. We want to share our experiences.

So we create rules. And then we create consequences for not following the rules.

Parents and teachers reward children who follow instructions. Kids realize what’s needed to be successful. So they follow instructions. They keep original thoughts to themselves.

The same behavior plays out in most companies.

Following the rules is met with appreciation. While questioning them isn’t seen as a positive.

And we reinforce that compliance is the desired behavior. We push employees to make a Faustian bargain. They sacrifice creativity and independent thoughts for acceptance.

Every Time a Bell Rings, a Bureaucrat Makes a Rule

“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

It’s depressing to consider the amount of rules at most companies. Everything from detailed hiring procedures to the process of writing a quality letter. Procedures covering appropriate language and dress codes. Rules on start times and core hours. Sick leave policies and training requirements. An endless list of rules to prescribe our decisions.

I once reviewed a company that had a procedure on how to properly write an email. It told everyone the appropriate font, text size, color, and structure. Do you think they were being terrorized by rainbow colored, Helvetica messages? Or did someone in HR just have too much time on their hands one day?

I reviewed another company that gave out code of conduct policies to each employee on how they would behave outside of work. Not just on company business. But at home. Over the weekends. On vacation with their families. I’m all for behaving responsibly, but occasionally getting drunk and passing out on my front lawn is a God-given right.

Our company websites may say we want creativity. We may preach it during management speeches or include it on someone’s performance appraisal.

But what are we telling people when we try to prescribe every independent decision? That we’re interested in their innovation, but only within the bounds of our procedure? Feel free to think independently, but only if it follows the path that we laid out for you?

Rules Make Us Generic

“Our world no longer fairly compensates people who are cogs in a giant machine.” — Seth Godin, Linchpin

When we’re given rules, we’re just expected to follow them. We don’t need to think of new solutions. We’re able to turn off the creative portion of our brains.

Occasionally this is fine. We shouldn’t need a lot of independent thought to stop at a red light. Or to brush our teeth each morning.

But the majority of our day isn’t this black and white. Often there’s many more solutions than the one which authority has presented to us. Yet rules and procedures extend well beyond these simple right/wrong decisions.

And between our ever-growing list of procedures and ingrained routines, we become more and more likely to drift through the day on autopilot.

We stop stretching our creative muscles. And like any muscle, they atrophy.

All of this makes us more generic. Those whose main skill is to follow directions are this generation’s unskilled workforce. And they will always be the easiest group to replace.

Instill Values, Not Rules

“People who truly understand what is meant by self-reliance know they must live their lives by ethics rather than rules.” — Wayne Dyer

But if there’s no rules, we’ll have chaos. People will take advantage of the flexibility and our quality will suffer. Or so the rule-makers would say.

But to credit this belief, we also must believe that people are inherently dishonest. That they aren’t looking to deliver their best product or perform at a top quality.

Which I don’t believe is true.

People generally want to do high quality work. They want to be successful and be proud of their efforts.

The majority of workplace conflicts aren’t regarding poor performance. They’re regarding people who believe they have a better way of resolving an issue but are overly constrained. The majority of frustration isn’t due to management enforcing a minimum level of quality. It’s due to employees trying to maximize quality in light of the procedural yokes that we attach to them.

Just as kids generally want to be good. They want our appreciation and recognition. They want their parents and teachers and coaches to acknowledge their efforts.

In both cases we need to reinforce the behaviors that we want to encourage. And that isn’t when people simply follow rules. It’s when they act in accordance with values.

In Creatvity, Inc., Ed Catmull stresses the importance of values as a means of encouraging a culture of creativity.

“At Pixar, we try never to waver in our ethics, our values, and our intention to create original, quality products. We are willing to adjust our goals as we learn, striving to get it right — not necessairily to get it right the first time. Because that, to my mind, is the only way to establish something else that is essential to creativity, a culture that protects the new.”

With the right values, we’re equipped with the criteria to evaluate future decisions. We no longer need a procedure. We’re able to assess each situation and decide which option best aligns with our guiding values.

Values Deliver Value

“When a vendor or a customer must choose between an organization working hard to defend the status quo and one that’s open to big growth in the future, the choice is pretty simple.” — Seth Godin, Linchpin

Amy Wrzeszniewski and Jane Dutton established the theory of job crafting based on insights of how hospital cleaners, nurses, engineers, and hairdressers craft their jobs to instill a greater sense of meaning in their work.

Job crafters were seen to revise their tasks, relationships, and mindset to not only deliver the basic level of job requirements, but often deliver a much greater service to the organization. And they were consistently seen to be more engaged at work, considering it less of a job and more of a calling.

More engaged employees are better employees. Invested employees will look for opportunities to add more value. People who find meaning and passion in what they do will deliver greater commitment and look to grow.

This happens when values drive people to achieve. Not because rules tell them to.

(Courtesy of James Pond via Unsplash)

Our Actions Speak for Us

“What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims
(Or if you prefer the streamlined version — “What you do speaks so loud, that I cannot hear what you say.” — John Barrett Donaldson, The Life That Lasts)

Yes, it would be so much easier if we could just force our own values on everyone else. But there’ve been others who’ve tried this before. And history is rarely kind to them.

But we can demonstrate them. And show the benefits. And give people an environment that reinforces that behavior.

We can trust people to do the right thing, regardless of whether there’s a procedure. And we can appreciate when their principles lead them down a new path. And we can acknowledge behaviors that sacrifice short-term comfort for long-term gains.

We can give people an environment to make decisions and grow in accordance with their values. Or we can prescribe their daily behaviors.

I suppose the real question should be:

Do we believe our company will be more successful if our people are more obedient? Or would it be better if our people are more innovative, motivated, and connected?

We don’t get to choose both.

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