Here’s how leaders can manage the flow of creativity in their organisation
By JACK CHUA
Today, creativity is a highly prized attribute. Phrases like “imaginative,” “maverick” and “able to think out-of-the-box” are frequently used to describe leaders that open up new avenues or cause “disruptions” in their respective fields.
As we step into the information age, creativity has garnered increasing attention from various quarters in the past few decades. Technology has become the vital driving force of today’s economy; organisations are opting for flatter and leaner structures, and work is becoming more dynamic, requiring individuals to devise new strategies to solve new problems.
The big question is: Are leaders of today well-equipped to lead a creative workforce?
This article aims to look at how some leadership styles are driving away creative talent and causing people to become more risk-averse, fearful of novelty and conformist. We will also look at how some creative leaders change the game by veering off from traditional styles of managing people.
20th century solutions for 21st century challenges?
One of the main factors that will stop people’s creative juices from flowing is the belief that people operate as “cogs in the machine.” This “Machine” Model of Management is pervasive in industries that treat workers as robots in an assembly line.
According to this management model, the manager’s job is to control and fine-tune the machine. They must closely monitor everything the workers do to ensure that there is no slacking off.
Methods that turn managing people into a “science” akin to Newtonian physics have their roots in the management philosophy of Frederick Taylor. In the early 20th century, Taylor visited factories and scientifically scrutinised the behaviour of workers, measuring their speed and productivity, to find the optimal condition that maximises their output.
His methods of optimising employee output gained widespread traction in universities that began offering MBA degrees to individuals who would put Taylor’s theories into practice. His influence in management science can still be felt today.
Taylor’s management model may have worked last century in the assembly lines of Ford Motor Company. With the arrival of the information age however, his legacy would prove to be detrimental to industries relying on creativity and innovation to spur growth.
Below are some of the main impediments that traditional leadership practices pose:
#1 Hard-headed adherence to the business plan
According to Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Steve Blank, traditional companies place undue faith in the “business plan.” The well-thought-out business plan, according to traditional MBA wisdom, determines if a business will succeed or fail.
In his book, The Startup Owner’s Manual, Blank turns this traditional wisdom on its head by claiming that the business plan is merely a hypothesis, a conjecture or, to put it simply, a guess. He advocates testing out ideas via experimentation as tech founders often make the mistake of thinking that they understand customers and their needs.
Innovation is not something that happens in the laboratory or the office. It requires constant feedback and refinement. Blank calls on entrepreneurs to get out of the building, show others a prototype of their product, start talking to customers about what the product is missing out, and figure out ways to improve upon it.
Flickr is a great case study. Most may be familiar with Flickr as a photo-sharing app, but few know that it started off with a very different business model.
In 2002, Stewart Butterfield and his team started off wanting to build an addictive online game called Game Neverending. They planned to include a social networking component to their game to enable players to share photos and communicate with one another using instant messaging.
It later turned out that customers loved the idea of the photo-sharing app so much that the team ended up diverting most of their attention to it than to building their game. The app, which would later be called Flickr, became a hit as it contained great features that not many professional photo-sharing softwares had. Since its release in 2004, Yahoo acquired it for US$35mil after witnessing its usage double every month.
“No start-up business plan survives first contact with customers,” Blank once said.
Lacking these insights, many start-up founders during the dotcom bubble operated their companies based on the traditional model of management, while throngs of wealthy investors offered humongous financial backing. Needless to say, few ended up well.
Iridium, one of the largest tech companies in the 1990s, is a textbook case of this phenomenon. Its grand plan was to build a telephone system that can work anywhere, even in uninhabited jungles, deserts and mountain tops. The plan took seven years and a US$5.2bil budget to research and develop, which involved 72 satellites being launched into space.
By the time all this was done, mobile phones have already developed to a point where services were available in most parts of the globe, and only a handful of people actually needed Iridium’s archaic-looking products. The shrinking market eventually forced the company into bankruptcy.
#2 Rigid conformity
Another by-product of the Machine Model of Management is the belief that what is orderly is definitely good. Workers are encouraged to preserve unchallengeable time-tested traditions of how things should be done. How many times have we been told that a procedure has to be followed for no other reason than because that is the way it has been done all this while?
Traditionalists also place high value on conformity. Conformity is detrimental to independent and creative thinking. As a social species, most human beings find it difficult to resist the temptation to take the path of least resistance and just tow the party line. It is rare for people to hold values and opinions that are contrary to the people around them. We fear judgement and ridicule from others.
Creative leaders have found various solutions to escape social conformity. A straightforward solution is simply to have a “time out” session, a session where you shut yourself off from distractions and sit quietly on your own. People who work in creative fields realise that ideas need time to incubate.
As Steve Wozniak, the tech genius who co-founded Apple, once said, “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me. . .they live in their heads. . . .In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone.”
This is crucial for fields that require acute and focused attention like art or computer programming. Experts are highly focused and strongly invested in their fields, according to psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has studied thousands of experts across various fields, such as chess, computer programming, music and literature.
To become an expert, an individual has to spend thousands of hours on deliberate practice – a kind of rehearsal where you have to mindfully master a skill and gradually ramp up the difficulty to push the boundaries of your capabilities. As with other fields, creativity is a skill that needs to be trained and harnessed.
Many organisations today have tried less solitary approaches to breaking the rigid structure of conventional management. Modern companies like Google have implemented an open office plan, flexible work schedules, and a progressive work-from-home policy, which drive growth despite being against traditionalist assumptions of how a company should be run. These policies offer greater freedom to employees treating them as more than mere robots.
#3 Having the wrong rewards
The Machine Model of Management assumes that work performance can be increased proportionally with financial incentives. For decades, economists and proponents of Taylor’s management science lauded this view. The actual psychology of human motivation is a little more complex.
When psychologists Mark Lepper and David Greene investigated what motivates humans to be creative, their research yielded findings that were rather unintuitive. Through a series of social experiments, psychologists recruited people to engage in tasks that required creativity, such as solving puzzles or creating art. They varied the amount of financial rewards given to these individuals.
One would normally expect that those who are paid more to be able to perform better on the task – but contrary to common sense, those who were paid highest performed the poorest, while those who were not paid performed the best. The same results were found across different populations across diverse settings.
The apparently unintuitive results can be explained by something that psychologists call “intrinsic motivation.” Intrinsic motivation is a motivation that comes from deep enjoyment of what you are doing.
External rewards, like money or your favourite food, only serves to distract you from intrinsic motivation. When external rewards are presented, we tend to think along the lines of “When can I get my reward for doing this?” rather than “How do I solve this puzzle?”
If this seems surprising, then think about the big tech achievements that were created and maintained by a community of volunteer programmers – Apache, the Web server; Firefox, the free Web browser; Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia; and Linux, the operating system.
Karim Lakhani and Bob Wolf conducted a research on nearly 700 developers who have volunteered their time and energy to build open-sourced software. The main driving force, they found, was enjoyment.
The developers experienced intrinsic motivation in these volunteer jobs. Describing the sense of fulfilment experienced when building their open-source software, most of these developers reported being in the state of “flow.”
“Flow” is a psychological state of higher awareness, coupled with intense focus, resulting in almost complete tuning out of the surrounding environment. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Chick-sent-me-high), a person achieves optimal performance when in the state of flow.
The state of flow is achieved when one is highly engaged in a task that drifts between being difficult enough to offer you an interesting challenge, but not too easy that you lose interest.
That being said, financial rewards are still important for rigidly structured, repetitive or high-risk jobs, where people feel that they need to be compensated for their time and effort.
However, these types of rewards should not be the only ones relied upon where creativity is concerned. Leaders should also try to make tasks enjoyable, engaging and challenging enough to promote optimal performance.
Are we ready for the 21st century?
The move from an automaton-like business model to one that is dynamic and able to cope with changes needs to promote creativity. The leaders who are able to embrace this change are the ones who will bring success.
Creative leaders in Asia
Malaysia is home to some of Asia’s most renowned creative leaders. Here are some of them:
Earning his first million at the age of 20, Joel Neoh is one of Malaysia’s top successful entrepreneurs. He founded several thriving tech start-ups, such as Groupon Malaysia, the e-commerce website; KFit, a service that allows members to access gyms and fitness studios; and YouthSays, an online community for youths to share their opinions. His companies have gained traction, not just in Malaysia, but also in other parts of Asia. He has also made investments in numerous tech companies in Asia. He is one of the foremost leaders in Malaysia’s internet start-up industry.
Neoh employs his creative energies in a focused and strategic way. He looks at how communities can benefit from his ideas and how to turn a profit from his services. For him, the essential skills needed for his work are a hunger for learning, deep passion, and the ability to manage time.
To Malaysians, Tony Fernandes needs no introduction. Fernandes turned AirAsia, a failing government-linked company into Malaysia’s first budget airline. He also founded Tune Group, which aims to provide affordable entertainment and leisure activities to Asian markets.
Graduating with a degree in accounting, his career spans across various industries. He was a financial controller at Richard Branson’s Virgin Records, and later an executive at Warner Music. In 2001, he used his personal savings to purchase the then-highly indebted government-owned company, AirAsia, and became its chief executive officer.
As an entrepreneur, he is creative in formulating his vision—which is to run his own budget airline. He is bold and daring in exploring a business model that others have ignored. He is also determined and confident in pursuing his dream, which turned out to be a highly disruptive force in the airlines industry.