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Culture begats creativity - a gapingvoid perspective

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy April 10, 2017
Culture and creativity go hand in hand but what is the reality and is the notion of creative business a pipedream? Gapingvoid is optimistic but makes clear the need for significant change management. That starts at the top.

how things work - gapingvoid
Gapingvoid and Brian Solis have a new schtick about the business of creativity. As with most things that gapingvoid churns out, 10 reasons your culture is failing and new insights on how to fix it is highly accessible and entertaining as they tap into the zeitgeist around creativity, culture and the perceived need for change.

Before getting into that, have you noticed there is a lot of chatter about creativity? That people need somehow to become magically more creative - whatever that means? There are numerous contexts for this, along with important subtexts. Here's a few:

  • Jobs are going away. Subtext - heh, get creative
  • AI solves world peace - now get creative in implementing solutions. Subtext - for problems we've no clue about.
  • We need to be more creative. Subtext - how about inside the 99% of companies where management remains in command and control mode?
  • Creativity produces great results when it's done among collaborators. Subtext - but only when the culture allows for that in the first place.
  • Being creative will make us hyper differentiated. Subtext - anyone thought about execution?

On its face, the idea of being creative is alluring. I get to do the things in which I am interested or passionate. I get to think outside the proverbial box. I get to see my work make a difference. It's OK to fail because I will learn and do better the next time. And if I'm in a company that rewards this kind of stuff, then I get the bonus of kudos and recognition for achieving something that otherwise would remain a dream.

Except there is a problem with this. A big problem. Creativity is not something that you can mandate and it works differently across different cultures. As management, you don't get up one bright morning and throw down creativity as the next new thing your people are doing.

In the west, people (mostly) expect process which you can be sure will crimp creativity almost from the get go. Creativity as a topic has very different meanings to those who work in eastern and western environments. (PDF download) But one conclusion from the academic research is important to note:

Cultural tendencies to emphasize novelty vs. usefulness/acceptability in the search for creative solutions likely reflect social norms that are supported by institutionalized procedures for organizing industrial research as well as by tacit, ubiquitous rules of appropriate self-presentation and interpersonal interaction.

In short, creativity exists within the context of a culturally normative environment that leads to a spectrum of outcomes, depending upon what those norms dictate.

Much of the Gapingvoid book talks to the problems of employee engagement and institutional change. It recognizes the problems of a predominantly western phenomenon, where business largely remains in command and control mode and where collaboration and creativity are stifled. As such, the book pitches Gapingvoid's value proposition as one that centers upon change management, casting HR as playing a central role:

Where’s HR in all of this? It’s supposed to be “human resources.” These days, HR may as well stand for Human Restrictions.

There is truth in that. In a recent conversation with a senior UK NHS manager, she argued that the NHS digital transformation programme that was recently panned by the UK's House of Lords, has almost zero chance of successful execution. The manner in which employees are assessed is based upon a rigid and siloed performance management system that effectively discourages anything beyond that which is proscribed in agreed job descriptions. A case of institutionally imposed jobsworth culture? Sounds like it to me.

Another way to look at this is to consider the place of technology in the context of making the workplace better. In his discussion about the latest United PR disaster, Stuart Lauchlan concludes:

The question is, does United give a damn? I suspect not. If the share price was badly hit, then maybe. But is there a shred of customer-centricity on display at United? Not that i can see. And as I said at the start, all the CRM and marketing spend in the world isn’t going to fix that.

Sure. And if a company is prepared to treat customers badly, imagine how much worse it is for employees? The irony is that when I speak with employees in troubled organizations, the predominant topic that comes up goes like this:

I would gladly help out if it wasn't for the fact I know I'm either going to get into some sort of trouble or will be ignored.

The willingness is there, but the incentives don't exist. So while Gapingvoid's mission is to help bring change, the real mission must surely be a reset of culture that has been established by both custom and practice, along with getting management to be less risk averse. In that context management has to trust that its employees really want to do what is best as a way of developing their own sense of self worth in the work they undertake.

Revolutionary? Not really. Check out the MeetEdgar success story and then follow the links that talk to how the company operates. It is a business built for the 21st century.  Now contrast that with those companies that mandate things like the requirement to attend certain offices when the creative workforce is already accustomed to successful remote working. How well does IBM really think this will work out? We shall see over time, but in the similar Yahoo! case, we already know that among other things, such mandates are a dismal failure.

The notion of culture spawning creativity and its sibling innovation are alluring. My sense is that it will be many years before the idea of developing freewheeling cultures of the kind Gapingvoid envisages take hold. But at least it is good to see consultancies of this sort emerging to tackle the problem in a methodical manner that will appeal to management for its process and employees for its art.

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