Can we all be creative given the right circumstances or is creativity the preserve of a few naturally talented people? It’s an important question for organisations. If it’s the former, you foster an environment where people are given as much freedom and stimulus as possible. If it’s the latter, you recruit highly creative people and keep everyone else in their boxes.
Later on in his post – worth reading in its entirety – we get an explanation of why the latter should be the case. He quotes from Philip Delves Broughton thus:
Most of us, he says, are average. The job of managers is, therefore, to manage the mediocre middle, get as much out of them as they can and stop them from trying to be too creative.
Broughton goes even further, observing that in at least one technology company certain strategies are used to “keep the middle focused and spare senior managers having to fend off endless half-baked ideas and requests”.
My experience as a lowly worker in a banking corporation, where – over several separate periods of senior management turf wars and empire-building – IT systems were chosen by such managers without reference to the people who did the work, is that part of the problem we have in such hierarchical organisations is precisely the inability of these executives to listen properly to what the middle (or, indeed, the bottom) has to think and say on virtually any matter. They are so involved in the outward signs of decision-making process – the meetings, the conference calls, the physicalities of communication – that they very rarely actually pay any attention to warning signs on the ground as a project proceeds.
Their helicopter views flatten all the ridges and mountains and make obstacles disappear unquestioningly.
Only when a new process needs to be implemented, and the systems fail to do what the salespeople promised they would, do these senior managers then put it all in the hands of their hapless workforces, used by now to simply having to get on with the job of employing their base and unrecognised creativity to create the relevant workarounds which will serve to sort out the mess the allegedly imaginative types always seem to manage to leave behind them.
If truth be told, there are two types of imagination in a company: one we may perhaps inadvisably term male, the other we may perhaps inadvisably term female. I divide it so, even though I risk causing offence, because I saw it split thus in my aforementioned former place of work. The driven and single-minded souls, the supposedly “creative” types at the top of the tree, mainly red-blooded alphas it would seem (and therefore males), all seemed to try and fashion future perfections that would solve the company’s problems at one fell stroke. Meanwhile, when the catastrophes that resulted threatened to destroy the ability of the organisation to do the job it was supposed to do, it became the turn of the mostly female workforce at the lower levels of responsibility to use their well-honed abilities to think everyone out of the bag senior managers had got into the habit of dropping the company in.
Because this female creativity I describe (some men exhibit it also, by the way – though rarely as uncomplainingly as their female colleagues might) is so very very clever and good at what it can achieve, there is, as a result, absolutely no incentive nor need for the male creativity to act any more efficiently or realistically than it already does.
Thus we witness the kind of situation where people at different levels in such large organisations find it difficult to learn from another; are unable to respect the wisdoms of another; and come to the conclusion that the mediocre middle (or, indeed, bottom) needs to stay in its cowed and evermore data-inputting boxes.
There is one exception to those sectors which refuse to recognise the value of the supposedly mediocre middle, though: the practice of politics. For politics, the middle is neither mediocre nor to be undervalued: the middle, in politics, being the Holy Grail that generally leads to the winning of elections.
So often does politics seem to get 21st century life wrong at the moment. And yet, maybe here we see something different.
Are we actually saying that the instincts of politics are right in all of this? Valuing the middle not as mediocre but something splendidly imaginative. A crossing of frontiers and borders bound to generate the kind of creative dissonances a modern century requires.
Or do Rick’s management experts have the finger on the pulse of what makes a company – and by extension, a society too – as creative as it should be?
Creative enough to devise one best way – but not too creative to question it!
Pardon me my cynicism, will you? I guess I’m already too old to easily believe what I’m told.
So then. To summarise. Marvellous, mediocre – or even anti-creative perhaps? Who’d care to occupy the middle of almost anything?
Except, conceivably, the most creative of all human beings … that highly underestimated worker, and voter, bee.
My money’s on the middle. What about you?