By Mary T. O’Sullivan
Creative strategies for problem solving and the role of creativity in the organization.
Do you feel like a “slot” at work? Show up, do your job, don’t ask questions and go home. In that environment, how does innovation get off the ground? Where did that instant heat wrap you place on your aching back come from? Who’s idea was the minivan and how did it find its way to the production line? How did we end up with jet engines instead of propeller driven airplanes? What if we never had these things? What would our world be like without them? What kills the creative impulse and what nurtures it? And why do we care? The patent office is still in business, right?
In an 1998 Harvard Business Review article, “How to Kill Creativity”, various solutions are offered as antidotes to the lack of creativity in many corporate cultures. We learn of studies which demonstrate theories of the three components of creativity (expertise, creative thinking skills, and the importance of motivation, especially intrinsic motivation. The article seems to promote the concept that leadership is once again a key component of employee performance, and the many examples cited, in particular, the story of Proctor & Gamble’s transformation; demonstrate that when managers provide employees proper latitude, good things happen . The most outstanding example in the P&G saga is the creation of their Corporate New Venture (CNV) group who brought forth a product that was “designed to provide portable heat for several hours’ for relief of minor pain.” When this article was published, the product was still under test; however, we can recognize that product as “Thermacare Heat Wraps”, now sold by another pharmaceutical corporation.
P&G’s new product development team, CNV, would not have been possible without the support of management, the self-motivated (all volunteer) workforce, as well as the freedom around “how, when, and where they approached their work”. This example reinforces Amabile’s theories of providing “challenge, freedom, resources, work-group features, supervisory encouragement, and organizational support”.
Many managers are fearful of such “skunk works” organizations, and we know these groups are often created, only to have Profit and Loss obligations placed upon them. Of course, this action leads directly to a total lack of creativity but serves to give management that warm fuzzy that those “crazy scientists in the back room” are actually being productive. Let’s not go down this dirt road now, however, the lack of adequate goal setting or challenge as defined in Harvard Business Review is the primary reason that “skunk works” organizations fail.
Other missteps that kill creativity include taking a well functioning team and breaking it up to serve the desires of others, rather than the creative synergy of a team. One team I observed was a large group of “mutually supportive” experienced professionals who all worked very well together. It was a diverse group including several professional, well qualified women, as well as diverse age groups. People in this group all helped each other and definitely fell into the categories explained by Amabile. (Expertise, Creative Thinking Skills, Motivation).
There were people with years of expertise, as well as new people with lots of creative ideas and solutions to invigorate the team. This team worked well together despite poor resources; use of email for archiving and as a main communication tool with suppliers and management, but with an extremely slow and ill functioning, and frustrating email system, cramped office areas; slow and byzantine electronic order placement and contract creation systems; continuously malfunctioning printers and copy machines; a faulty lock on the supply cabinets (you needed to be a magician to open them), etc. The team’s expertise offset each other; someone could always answer a question or help another team member. The team had experts in international contracting, specialists in the electronic systems, proposal experts, experts in all the deadly details in order placement, and people who just knew how to get things done in a crippling bureaucracy. Since the office space was open, people could often shout a question or an answer without even having to leave their seats. This space arrangement, although not private supports the theory of the importance of “physical space”. Since the other “leadership” individuals exerted their power, with little or no support for the team from their own “leadership team”, the once bustling corridors became empty and dark. The team members left behind didn’t have time to help each other, as they were too busy with their own work. The spirit of the group suffered, and people felt the pain of losing so many minds to help solve problems. People were still messaging each other but was not quite the same as popping in each other’s offices or yelling across the aisle.
Since the group dispersed, those left behind felt less productive, and certainly didn’t feel as if they were learning more or creating more. If someone was relatively new to the group, and heavily relied on the other members for support in many aspects of the job, they were lost. After the move, some team members were forever pestering the boss, who was patient, but who usually directed them to another co-worker for assistance. Usually that person was so overwhelmed, the customary enthusiastic support or reception was gone, especially since there were fewer voices heard over the office walls.
Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach (ICF-PCC), Society of Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP). Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. Mary is also an ICF certified Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner, and a Certified EQi-2.0 and EQ360 Practitioner.
Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to new ways of thinking, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. In additional, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education and taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area. Today, Mary dedicates herself to helping good leaders get even better through positive behavior change