#265 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 3          March 1997

Creating the Creative Organization
by Brian F. Smyth

Mr. Smyth is director of Synectics Ireland Ltd., Dublin.  Previously, he was managing director at General Motors manufacturing plant in Ireland.  He can be reached at (353) 1-6619244.

They say that the definition of a prodigy is what every parent thinks their child is until they begin school!  The joke here is supposedly on the adoring and illusion-filled parents who are apparently overestimating the capabilities of their dear ones.

But maybe the shoe should be on the other foot, and it is the school that’s wrong.  Maybe, in fact, they are all out of step except our Johnny!  If so, it turns out to be a bad and tragic joke.  There is a lot of evidence to support the theory that much of the innate creativity in children is knocked out of them around the age of 5, about the time they commence school.  The arguments in support of this theory are very strong as “getting it right” becomes the thing to do.  “Getting it right,” of course, means that the child’s answer or solution should match that of the teacher or some other expert or textbook.  It does not involve or encourage one to come up with a new answer or one’s own answer.  The natural desire to be accepted and to please confirms this tendency.  As a result, creativity and spontaneity suffer or die.  The prodigy has passed away.  Prodigious performance disappears.

Prodigious Performance, Creativity and the Business Organization

If any prodigies survive this onslaught—and some undoubtedly do—they have a yet bigger hurdle to cross:  the bureaucratic organization.  At the mention of “bureaucratic” you will breathe a sigh of relief saying to yourself, “I know who he is talking about; it’s those big public institutions or megabusinesses.  I’m OK.”  But I am talking about you and you and you and me because all business organizations are bureaucratic.  Now you are really annoyed at my arrogance and you are right, I am exaggerating. 

About one percent of us are not bureaucratic.  But it is only one percent, and before you include yourself among those chosen few, ask yourself how many things you have changed in your organization to have earned that privileged status.  Because, unless you have made some radical changes, you can be sure you are operating a bureaucracy which is about giving power to the system and permitting and expecting the system to do a lot of the managing in your organization.  All this means is that your earlier education has done a good job to have you easily fit into the system.  The few remaining prodigies will have further pressures put on them to conform and “get it right.”

Managing and Creativity

Of course I am exaggerating again, but there’s too much truth in what I’m saying to ignore the critical messages and lessons that stare us in the face on a daily basis as we fit people into boxes, offices, organizational charts, clearly defined roles and strict operating procedures and policies.  All of this falls under the heading of managing, and this is supposedly a good thing and the more of it we do, the better it supposedly is.  But is it?  Of course it’s necessary and a good thing to have managers, for without managers who would control things and who would live up to and deliver on the promises and commitments on which our own plans and our own promises and commitments were built?  This is how the system works and, good as it is, it’s not good for creativity nor for the few remaining prodigies.

But what if we’re greedy and want both?  What if we want to be able to promise and deliver and, at the same time, safeguard and encourage the prodigies, both the apparently dead ones, as well as those still alive?  This is an entirely justifiable request and an equally feasible one; but it means taking some risks, having a lot of confidence in ourselves and in others, and in operating differently in the following seven areas.

An Exciting Vision Shared by All

Before you skip to the next one with a “well we’re OK here,” just three questions:

   How truly exciting is your vision?  For you?  For others in the organization?
   How meaningful and valuable is the vision for your people and your customers?
   How many know the vision and identify with it?

If you have difficulty with any of these questions, you have some important work to do.  That work will make a huge difference to the drive, energy and desire to create new things and new ways of doing things.

Dynamic Management

On a coaching program I run for many companies around the world, I get people to perform a very simple exercise around bouncing a tennis ball.  In three minutes I can destroy their performance, and I do so by behaving as a normal manager.  I simply tell them how they’re doing.  This establishes me as superior, and them as inferior.  By doing this, I easily wreck their confidence and destroy their performance.

Nobody complains, because they are used to being treated like that.  Through this tennis ball game, I clearly show what we do to people by establishing ourselves as superior and, by definition, them as inferior.  When this continues down the line, we end up with a lot of inferiors. 

We need to take a serious look, then, at the way we manage people.  Perhaps, we should see ourselves as coaches, mentors or supporters rather than as managers.  We have to get away from practices that do terrible damage to people’s expectations of themselves as creative human beings.

Continuous Improvement

Billy Connolly, the Scottish comedian, says the Queen of England thinks the world smells of paint because wherever she goes, that place has been painted a few hours or days before she gets there!  The same must be true for most senior managers.  Staff find out what they want their bosses to see and hear, then they show them and tell them that this is how things are!  And, worse than this, we believe our own stories! 

This mirage removes the need for creativity, because all is well and everyone plays the game.  If it’s true that times of war and difficulty are fertile ground for creativity, then nothing much is going to get grown or get created if we are living in a dream world.  We need to allow honesty, permit people to say things as they are without fear or reprisal.  We should reward those who tell us about the mess we’re in.  People love challenges, and all kinds of prodigies will come back to life—if we feed them a dose of challenges.

External Focus

All organizations build walls around themselves—real ones and psychological ones.  The latter are more dangerous.  They are built with the bricks of past successes, plans to which we’re fiercely attached, fear of failure, beliefs in our own cozy presentations, and cemented with internal rivalries, competition and dynamics.  We need to tear down these walls and sit down among ourselves, and with our customers, to create an exciting future we all share in.


In a company I worked with, equipment performance and machine up-time is critical. Some weeks back, a maintenance union representative told me, “The more often machines break down, the longer it takes to fix them, and the sooner they break down, the better it is for me since I get extra overtime pay.”  He wasn’t boasting.  He was pointing an accusing finger at a system that rewards behaviors that are the exact opposite of the desired ones.  If we want people to have a real and passionate interest in the business, and want them to give their all, then we have to take a look at how we reward them.  Ensure that the welfare of the organization and everyone’s own welfare are closely linked, and to be seen as closely linked.

Structures and Systems

For creativity to thrive, it’s important that synergy, teamwork and sharing take place.  Einstein is supposed to have said that three or four people tackling a problem together are the equivalent of a genius.  Why then do we create barriers between people?  These barriers include departments, functions and empires.  It’s a form of bureaucracy of course and, while it may be very worthwhile in many cases, it’s imperative to build alternative ways of working that will bridge these chasms.  Ideas will come together, mate and produce exciting offspring.

Passion for Learning

Compare the concentration and infatuation of the child, with a new toy or the car keys they just grabbed, with that same child fidgeting, distracted and bored at school.  How can we create that same infatuation and concentration around adult work?  We need to determine people’s areas of interest, and try to arouse once more the genius in them.

Yes, there is work to be done, but it should be fun work.  Create the best of both worlds—promises delivered and people freed up to create exciting products, services and futures.  Prodigious people producing prodigious performance!

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