The recent solar eclipse and the Venus transit made me think again about creativity and mind. I watched both events with awe, more a visceral appreciation than driven by any particular scientific principles. The knowledge and technology that have made it possible for us to witness the beautiful bright rim around the black moon and the extraordinary sunspot-like black disk against the orange ball (as viewed through a small telescope) are mysteries for most of us. And most of us take and enjoy such fruit with scant gratitude toward those who have created it. We take so much for granted the daily conveniences in which our lives are embedded; we don’t even pause now to think how far the human mind has traveled. These days, vacuous celebrities win our attention; mindless games and shows occupy our minds; the people who actually create and innovate are pushed aside, and those who manipulate money – not real products nor products of creativity – get to sit in the driver’s seat.
The economics Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, discussed this last point in his recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. He stressed that corporations nowadays reward short-term financial gains over long-haul innovative and creative activities. Indeed, most of the technological breakthroughs have come as a result of happy accidents. How can you program a scientific discovery?
How do all the above points relate to organizations? From the perspective that an organization is the collection of tens, hundreds, thousands of precious minds, it is all the more mind-boggling that organizations seem to strenuously obstruct what these minds can create. This was the premise of Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization; its tagline is: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits. He didn’t provide a 12-step program for making profits; instead, he focused on (1) how to treat people right, (2) how to make the work environment conducive for people to want to work, (3) how managers can get out of the way and make sure that there are as few obstacles for people as possible. Follow these basic principles, and profits will come.
However, instead of providing nutrients in the work environment, management seems to be obsessed with weeding out all the elements that are inconvenient to them, not to the working people. It is so much easier to apply pruning shears, pesticides and weed-killers in a garden or an orchard. But if you want to grow veggies, fruits, or flowers, those items will do just the opposite. You would think that for an organization emphasizing science and technology, management would want to encourage those minds to explore, to pursue all avenues of creativity. The local science organization with which I am familiar is the antithesis of such pursuits. I imagine asking the top managers in this organization to provide an actual list, with evidence, of things they use or do to nourish their staff. This is the organization where people seem to spend more than 50% of their precious time and brain power on compliance, 20-30% on preparation for actual work, proposals, documents, planning meetings, etc., and then whatever is left on the actual science. As an outside observer, I want to scream. For the people working inside, what’s their recourse?
I plan to write about this fairly famous organization in the near future.
I suspect one of the main forces that motivate managers/decision-makers to keep focusing on enforcement/compliance (certainly true in our local organization) is the prison wall they create for themselves. Once they latch onto an agenda – which might have been a necessary cause at one point – that becomes their main focus, and what their jobs are all about. Combining that with a sense of power and the need for control, creativity and innovation get pushed aside, and short-term gains, especially financial, represent one more feather in the power cap. For not-for-profit organizations, while they don’t aim for financial gain, the process of acquiring financial backing often becomes constraining (or constricting?).
Managers need to have some type of brakes in the system to signal them to go back to the basics: What do people on the jobs need? What do customers want? And more importantly, what is the organization good for?
Do you know what these brakes may look like and how to construct them? I welcome your input.
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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