The target of this tirade was a young engineer name Barry. Barry made a mistake on an order that caused an ugly manufacturing delay for a key customer. He tried to solve a particular problem in a novel way and it failed. The customer called the head of the organization to complain. He threatened to stop using them as a vendor. The boss made the assurances necessary to keep the customer happy. When he hung up the phone, he stormed out into the office and headed straight for Barry. People could see it coming. Some had overheard the heated telephone conversation. Other could simply tell something was wrong by noticing his clenched fists and the scowl on his face. The boss did not stop until he was looming over the young engineer. He let loose the tirade and then walked off shaking his head. Cubicleland was silent.
This is the same boss who hired me to help his organization understand creativity – how to “think outside the box.” He was displaying a classic problem: the creativity rhetoric gap. Most of the time there is a difference, a gap, between what the top brass and the company literature say about creativity and innovation and what the average person in the organization does with regard to these ideas. On the one hand a CEO might say that creativity is the lifeblood of the organization. He or she might list creativity or similar notions in the company’s annual report, or mission statement or among the corporate values. It makes for great copy. However, whether or not the rest of the leadership structure lives out these ideas every day is another matter entirely. In the case above, I was told on day one by the client president that they needed more initiative, more creativity. He told me, “I ask and I ask, but nothing, they just won’t respond.” After watching Barry get humiliated in front of all of his colleagues I understood why.
An incident like this has both direct and indirect effects. Both types are very damaging. The direct effects include:
o Damaging Barry’s ego
o Making Barry more “gun shy” in the future
o Causing Barry to loose respect for you (i.e., “the boss”)
o Causing Barry to dwell on the issue, hurting his productivity
The indirect effects may be even worse. When the boss did this, he did it publicly. This was a huge violation of the age old rule “praise in public, punish in private.” He did not merely harm Barry. He caused problems with each and every employee in ear shot. First, how they view Barry might change, depending on the severity of the incident. Others may begin behaving towards Barry as if he has lost some amount of social status. Worse still, they will learn from an incident like this, but it is not the type of learning you want. They learned that making mistakes is costly and embarrassing. They learned that if you upset the boss, there is hell to pay. Likely, without even knowing it, they learned that creativity and the risks involved are not worth it.
Creativity is inventing. It is coming up with something new. A new product, service, an improvement, a process tweak. It is a new and useful idea. Innovation is the more protracted process of attempting to derive value from creative ideas. Throughout the entire process, the number one issue is risk. I am not referring to the normal definition of risk that experts use when discussing the risk of innovation. They typically refer to a financial risk (not a trivial issue). I am referring to the experience of psychological risk by employees and leaders at different levels as they choose to engage creativity and innovation.
There is no shortage of risks employees will perceive when trying to decide whether to engage a discussion of a new idea or to work on a highly innovative project. These include the risk of:
o looking silly or incompetent
o receiving negative feedback
o losing face, social capital, reputation
o having one’s workload increase
o hurting relationships (every new idea has the potential to obsolete some older idea or practice)
o being taken seriously only to see the idea not work or the project fail
One thing is required above all else in order to win at the creativity and innovation game. You must manage and embrace the risk. Step one, banish negativity. Common sense and research are clear. Negativity at work kills creativity and innovation. If you are serious, it must be banished. Across hundreds of studies, the number one predictor of employee creativity is being “supportive” and “encouraging.” With small children, most of us immediately understand these notions. When dealing with adults – at work – somehow they elude us.
Next, understand the “bumps in the road.” This is a reminder that creativity is always the product of iterative attempts to improve over time and rarely, if ever, results from an instantaneous flash of insight. Translated: it takes a lot of less than wonderful ideas to get to the rare good ones that move the organization forward. Each and every time you see one of the bumps, like the one Barry experienced, you have a choice. You can scold him, be negative and fix the problem yourself. Or, you can see it for what it is – one of the many bumps that are inevitable on the road to creativity and innovation. “Failures” and “mistakes” only exist if you fail to learn from particular incidents. If you learn from such an incident, it is another wonderful and invaluable bump in the road. One more broken egg closer to a great omelet. If you can learn to identify and embrace the bumps in the road, Barry might start speaking up again. If not, you are full of hot air and the only thing you are doing is contributing to the rhetoric gap.
About The Author:
Dr. Dewett is a business professor, author, consultant and speaker specializing in leadership and organizational life. As quoted in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, the Chicago Tribune, MSNBC and elsewhere. His new book is Leadership Redefined. Find out more at http://www.drdewett.com