Messiness: Creativity = Neatness: Organization

How to be messy and neat at the same time? Can organizations foster the often haphazard and unpredictable creative or innovative process? I have known many individuals who are both messy (in certain areas) and organized (in other areas), or, who are both creative, especially in outcomes, and methodical in their minds. However, it is much tougher for organizations, especially of large size, to incorporate both flow-chart orderliness and trial-and-error playfulness.

Bill Barnett, a professor of the Business School at Stanford University gives this telling example: Singapore is a nation known for its planning and order. Not much public display is accidental, yet the government wants to promote the appearance that people live in the moment. So, they created the impression of improvisation and spontaneity on the streets by hiring and placing street performers strategically. Copying what other businesses do is easy, but surely not innovative. Even though we can sometimes learn from copying — copying a master’s artwork can be a valuable lesson if one is mindful — the key is in the “mind.”

Professor Barnett comments on Singapore example, “We manage away variance. Management system is aiming for the means.” The following graph says it all:


The red curve, representing the normal distribution, may contain many foolish acts on the left side while the right side may bear genius. But management is by and large interested in the abnormal distribution represented by the blue curve, into which they can herd their people or at least drive their behavior.

No mistakes, no breakthroughs. No foolishness, no genius. This is essentially what James March lays out clearly in his seminal article, “The Technology of Foolishness” which I summarized before. An organization exploits existing technology to make profits. For example, the term “cash cow” conjures the image of a product or technology in high demand, and if patented, protected as a monopoly for which profits can soar. However, in the long run, an organization that does not encourage exploration sooner or later loses advantage. Yet, exploration is costly, so, most organizations hesitate to invest. What’s more, management is inherently risk-averse. Managers hate “waste” and “mistakes.” Barnett points out the fundamental paradox, “If we know in advance what idea is right, or is wrong, then it’s not an innovative idea.”

Aida is our weird cat.

Aida is our weird cat.

Most organizations claim that they want innovation, but don’t know how to encourage those “variances” that would lead to innovative or creative breakthroughs. By and large, managers frown upon outliers. Indeed, for a large system to function smoothly, it needs uniformity, for measuring performance, for control, for prediction, etc. That’s why it’s a “system.”

In Professor Barnett’s talk, he does encourage organizations to set aside areas in their system to allow some “playfulness,” “mistakes,” “failures,” etc. In fact, “failure rate” is a good prediction for organization innovation efforts. The challenge for the organization is how to structure for failure allowance, particular in performance evaluation, reward and promotion. A two-track system is one logical solution: people on innovation track are evaluated by different criteria from those whose tasks are to execute planned activities. Still, this begs the questions: (1) whether people can accept being judged by different sets of criteria? and (2) whether such practice will result in animosity?

And then, there is the challenge for a manager in supporting people’s innovative work. How much playfulness is allowed? More importantly, how long should the manager keep faith in the innovation track individual: six months of failures? two years? This is where leadership is called for and truly tested.

Some well-known R&D labs have gone south over the past decades because the companies have traded high cost exploration for the assurance of Six-Sigma safety record. A manager comments on a chemistry lab, “It’s rather messy and there’s a lot of chemicals.” What do you say to that? Nowadays, executives and managers of R&D organizations and national science labs are the custodians of safety standards and records, performance milestones, manuals of procedures. How do we expect discoveries in such a rigid system? If a science lab reaches 100% safety record (which, by the way, is an impossibility to perpetuate, according to the third law of thermodynamics), the innovation rate is probably close to ZERO.

Sometimes uniformity has its value.

Sometimes uniformity has its value.

Of course, certain areas probably cannot tolerate many accidents, failures, or foolish plays, such as nuclear power plants, airplanes, skyscrapers. Still, when we reflect a little, we have to realize that even these technologies had accidents and failures in their early days. The evidence is that as we “advance,” our minds and senses grow duller, as well as our willingness to take some risks.

So, we need to mess up things a little. Coming up next, Robert Sutton has some “weird ideas” to offer. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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