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(Photographer: Helder Almeida/Copyright: 2009 Helder Almeida)
(Photographer: Helder Almeida/Copyright: 2009 Helder Almeida)

Leadership

Spurring creativity by letting employees break the rules Add to ...

The 1993 invention of a high-brightness, blue, light-emitting diode, which opened the way for the now-ubiquitous white LED, is often told as a tale of against-all-odds innovation by a maverick genius. When Nichia of Japan ordered researcher Shuji Nakamura to stop the expensive work on the project it had initially funded, he soldiered on. He secretly sought patents for his breakthrough. He even triggered several explosions in his laboratory.

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But what if the intransigence of Mr. Nakamura’s superiors helped to fuel his burst of radical creativity? And what if companies could harness such a force?

Babis Mainemelis, of Greece’s ALBA Graduate Business School, suggests it is possible to reconcile the evidence that managers can build frameworks for creativity and the apparently contradictory finding that staff working in direct breach of managerial edicts sometimes achieve great imaginative leaps. Mr. Nakamura is one example of the latter, he says. Others include Francis Ford Coppola, whose film The Godfather “violated Paramount’s directives about plot, cast, budget and location,” and Charles House of Hewlett-Packard, who defied orders from David Packard himself not to develop large-screen displays.

A new study backed by Adobe says six out of 10 adults consider themselves to be “someone who creates,” but that much of our ability to create is untapped.

Another study, from FutureStep, part of recruitment company Korn/Ferry, says creativity now ranks above customer focus and strategic agility as the quality most sought-after in managers hired for long-term impact. Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine, which explains the science of creativity, from Bob Dylan to Procter & Gamble, is topping bestseller lists.

This flowering of interest in creative people could be a signal that the recession’s survivors are now refocusing on growth. It could be merely the latest reflection of a human desire to be recognized as autonomous producers of novel ideas, instead of helpless grunts, at the mercy of martinet managers at work and television tastemakers at home. It could be a sign of spring.

Whatever has triggered the appetite, corporate executives are desperate to sate it. The classic examples of creative good practice are 3M or, latterly, Google. They are regularly praised for setting aside time for free thinking by staff. But companies could also encourage “creative deviance,” says Prof. Mainemelis. Early evidence from his follow-up studies – for instance, at an advertising agency – seem to support the proposition that managers could spark deviants’ imagination with a combination of tolerance, reward and, occasionally, punishment of their rule-breaking.

He admits that “truly organizing for creativity, not just celebrating it, does have some destabilizing effects.” Doubtless the LED pioneer’s colleagues, who came in one morning to find their lab benches scorched by his unauthorized experiments, would agree. But without the usual pressures to conform, innovations covertly developed by creative deviants stand a better chance of being radical successes, or so the theory goes.

I have three main concerns. The most trivial is that a plague of organizations will wackily restyle themselves as “deviant-friendly,” even though enshrining rule-breaking as one of the house rules seems to invite failure.

A second fear is that some clumsy managers will endorse creative flights of fancy among staff whose roles are strictly delineated for good reason – say, commercial airline pilots, accountants or surgeons. By all means, unshackle teams that design aircraft, surgical techniques or even accounting standards. But the limits on deviance must be clear. Tolerating those who creatively trespass out of bounds is one thing; turning a blind eye to others who leak commercial secrets, imperil customers’ safety, or entirely neglect their day job is quite another.

Finally, I worry that the idea that leaders should be deliberately inconsistent in tackling creative deviants will set a bad precedent. Arbitrariness – singling out some employees for praise but randomly castigating others – is a cardinal management sin in my book. Still, with appropriate caveats, if it proves to be the best way to propagate a new burst of creativity, innovation and growth, it could be the exception that proves the rule.

 
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