No workplace can be ‘creative’ under current management models

No workplace can really be creative under current management models

Managers love to talk about having creative teams, or creative people, or creative ideas — but most of that is a crock. Just like we confuse “strategy” (which is a long-term vision) with “operations” (which is the day-to-day execution of strategy), so too do we often confuse “that was creative!” with “that’s something that made some money for us, perhaps by happy accident.” There’s legitimate creativity — which can be defined many different ways, but essentially means a different path/solution/idea to a problem — and then there’s faux-creativity, which is essentially “we did something slightly different than our status quo and we still made money, so that’s cool.”

Art Markman is a dude I’ve read a lot from, and I respect his opinions greatly. He just wrote an article for Harvard Business Review about the trade-off between productivity and creativity, noting this:

Companies typically evaluate employees based on measures of productivity. More importantly, they set up their hiring plans based on the assumption that they are going to hire productive people. They want the people in the organization to make clear progress. And they focus on developing conscientious individuals who finish tasks.

That’s kind of the rub of the whole problem. Our management models have been set up around measures of productivity for generations — and our hiring models, logically, followed suit. Phrased another way: for years, what was valued was ‘execution’ and ‘expertise.’ If you believe we’re moving to a place of passion, purpose, and empathy in the next 20 years — that’s potentially true — then we need to start thinking about two major aspects of work:

  • How we hire
  • How we assign tasks and measure/reward success

Markman makes a good point — most organizations hire based on the tasks they need done to keep themselves afloat and/or making money. That’s true, and logical: essentially, “headcount” is just that. You claim you need someone to complete XYZ tasks, and you’re given budget to hire that person. That’s how we set most things up, and that’s logical from a bottom-line financial tracking standpoint.

What if we hired 10-15% more people than we actually need — or better yet, what if we looked at the people we already had in-house and determined who could take more on? That would free up people to do a little bit more than just their daily tasks. Daily tasks (“deliverables”) are, in some ways, murdering the whole concept of strategy for a lot of organizations. 

Here’s the high irony of many workplaces: we’re so concerned with things we can track, or data/metrics/analytics, and so we base everything off that — hiring models, promotion models, who touches what work, etc. And yet, most people in a given organization probably don’t understand how the targets/metrics/analytics we’re all chasing relate back to their work. That information tends to be clustered at the top, and you know what’s even more ironic? The people at the top may not completely understand what the data is saying, either.

If we could instill a few concepts in leadership/management teams, we’d probably be a little bit better off. To wit:

The bottom line is simple, though: how we hire and how we move people through organizations makes no sense when you look at the broader 2015-2016 business climate of most industries. It’s time for us to change that. It’s time for us to really think about creative people, and problem-anticipators and curious types, instead of just task monkeys who can be seen as effective and productive.

Ted Bauer

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