Sunday, January 23, 2005

The cost of creativity? 

I work for an organisation that has declared its intent to be "the most creative organisation in the world". It's also just declared the need for the most radical cost-cutting programme in its long history, with the loss of several thousand jobs. And nowhere have I heard anyone recognise the conflict between those two themes, let alone say how the conflict is to be resolved.

Creativity, according to complexity theory, thrives in an organisation "on the edge of chaos" - a place criss-crossed with a network unofficial linkages subverting conventional hierarchical channels; a place where ideas spring up at grass roots level according to need instead of being driven top-down; a place where there is room to play and experiment - room measured in time, in space, in money, in cultural freedom.

Our organisation has been described as a loose affiliation of autonomous fiefdoms - occasionally warring fiefdoms it has to be said, but for the most part it's a set-up that works. I nearly said a structure that works - but the one of the main reason for its success, I believe, is the looseness of its structure. Sure, there's a hierarchy, and some of those fiefdoms are more hierarchical than others, but in amongst that there are a lot of very creative people who just do their own thing, regardless. And some do their autonomous thing at quite a senior level, because they learned their creative craft at the cutting edge.

The trouble is, that autonomy gives rise to a lot of things that the cost-cutters beady eyes can identify and put a stop to. For example, our organisation invents a lot of wheels - surely it's more cost-effective just to invent the wheel once?

Well, that may depend on how you define cost effective. All those people busy inventing their own wheels may result in a bigger corporate wheel spend, but what the accountants' perspective misses is the intangible benefit of people's pride and commitment and empowerment and ownership of their work that derives from using a wheel that they've crafted with their own skills, that does exactly what they need it to do, when they need it to do it - unlike the standard one-size-fits-all corporate model.

In a traditional command-and-control structure, there wouldn't be a problem. If you want a wheel, you'd have no choice other than to go to the stores and withdraw a 'wheel, size 1, users, for the use of'. No other means of procuring a wheel would be open to you. End of story. But command and control is, as we know, rigid, inflexible, unable to respond rapidly to change.

So we try and build a flexible, creative organisation, and we employ flexible, creative, people - and then we impose rigid command-and-control constraints on them, and so create an organisation at war with itself. A conflict of philosophies - creative versus controlling - becomes a conflict in the workplace, and a climate brews of suspicion and mistrust of wheel-users and wheel-builders alike, as each takes up a secretly defensive position to guard their interests. Secret, because alongside that intent to build creativity, we also have a corporate value that declares how much we trust one another. Of course, all this is hidden behind a mask of smiles and rhetoric, but all the while, the police plot the downfall of the insurgents, and the insurgents plot ways of nullifying the power of the police.

You see, this is one of the things that most frustrates me in my job. The corner of the organisation where I work is one where hierarchy and strict management-by-cost rule, where we're forever battling to force people to use our standard wheel; where the talk is of "policing" the organisation to ensure there are no user-crafted wheels hidden away in secret corners. I don't doubt it keeps the corporate wheel budget down, and to be fair, there are other, valid, reasons for wanting to keep that degree of control and consistency.

But I find myself having to fight an increasingly marginalised corner, in a climate of withheld knowledge, suspicion and political manoeuvring - and that goes against the grain for me. Maybe I’m just not cut out for the rough and tumble of corporate life, but I favour trust and mutual support over intrigue and in-fighting. My head may understand why we do what we do, but my heart’s with the pirate wheel-builders.

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