Are companies killing creativity?

In previous jobs, I did lots of personality tests; Belbin, MBTI, Realise 2 etc… In almost all cases, I scored low on creativity and high on being a “shaper, orchestrator”. Now that I have left corporate life, the creative juices have started to flow again.  This blog explores why that may be, parallels with how we educate our kids and how we could revitalise demotivated, disengaged employees.

I wasn’t paid to have ideas

The Shawshank redemption is still my favourite film. I think that is because there are one or two lines in that film that reflect quite a lot about my philosophy towards life. One of those lines forms the core of what I want to share here. One of the characters, Brooks, has been in prison so long that he can’t possibly imagine life without it. The term they use is “institutionalised” (see the clip).

I know quite a few people who have been working in the same company for so long that I think this is what has happened to them also. To a certain extent, it had started to happen to myself. I was paid to transform ideas into businesses, not to come up with ideas. On the few occasions where I did have ideas, it made life uncomfortable as it required some “lateral, out of the box” thinking. The longer I stayed in the same company, the less creative I was becoming. I was programmed to think and behave the way the company expected me to. This is why companies tend to be better at execution rather than innovation. It is also what many of them measure you on. Even though I was often encouraged to “challenge the status quo”, there was very little appetite to execute any of the output. I arrived at a simple conclusion. Resistance to change was greater than the desire to change and people were incentivised to execute the existing business model rather than develop the future one.

So what has changed?

I now have a different problem. I have too many ideas and probably try to pursue too many of them in parallel and should focus more. I think that there are a few reasons why the creative juices are flowing again.

The first is that I need them to. If I don’t find an idea that I can transform into a business, I have no income. The necessity to be creative and take risks is crucial. It is easier to not take risks and let other people be creative when we get paid the same at the end of the day. This is a major obstacle to innovation within companies.

The second thing I notice is that there are virtually no constraints to my creativity. I have had a number of very different business ideas in the last year. I am not worried about respecting specific business models, following specific processes or making sure I don’t upset specific people by “challenging the status quo”.

The third thing is that I know why I want to be creative. My purpose, vision is clear even if the resultant ideas are very different. As a result, I’m more engaged, more pro-active and less concerned with detail when in the “ideation” phase. If one of the first things people say to you is “that’s impossible, we could never implement that” then of course that stifles creativity.

If companies want their employees to be more entrepreneurial, they would need to address these points.

I saw a program recently on the “Bamboo trains” of Cambodia. Imagine I asked you to create something which would enable you to transport goods and people, over a train line and needed to manage the fact that there was only one line and the trains needed to run in both directions frequently during the day. I don’t think I would have thought of this creative solution:

So what has all of this to do with reinventing education?

I watched this TEDTalk recently and loved it. It’s 20mins so I suggest you take a little quiet time to watch it as it will certainly get you thinking. It’s entertaining, not work!

His argument is that we all start out being inherently creative and that the education systems essentially reprograms us to stop being that way. I see similarities between his argument around education and my view that companies very often do the same thing when it comes to the creativity of their staff. That is what I think is “institutionalised”. I would argue that the need for companies, particular in Europe, to innovate is as important in economic terms as it is to educate our kids differently.

I saw a paper recently that said that there are about 400 million entrepreneurs globally at present and that this will rise to 1 billion by 2030. The reasons are that we need them, there won’t be enough jobs in any case to provide alternatives and flexibility is becoming increasingly important. I look forward to working in that kind of creative, dynamic environment.


2 responses to “Are companies killing creativity?

  1. I love this line:. Resistance to change was greater than the desire to change

    It describes my kids in the moment they don’t get what they want. They can’t see that the change could be something better because there is a time gap.

    I guess this is true in institutions, even if there is change, my inability to grasp (and have faith) that making a change will actually bring change says alot about how I view the world. Do I believe in the world, in myself or not? Or do I only trust the small steps in my limited vision?

    I also am intrigued by the question – how much structure is enough? Structure – building it and tearing it down is alot of work. Somewhere in this institutionalized mentality is the habit of idleness with payment. I think this is a very Western centric idea which comes from the reward and plundering of the ages. We lost the respect of belonging for the sharply focus spear of mine mine.

    Change always happens in at least two ways – from the pain of a situation or consciously in belief of a new situation. I would say 95% of society sits in the first.

    Great post David.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Which Superheroes can rescue us? | David Mellett·

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