Giving free rein to employee creativity

I first heard the name of Gillian Lynne from a wonderful TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson on how to bring about a learning revolution. Gillian is the choreographer for, among others, Cats and Phantom of the Opera, the well-known stage productions by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Apparently, Gillian was a terrible student in her younger days and was always very fidgety, apparently suffering from what we would call attention deficit disorder in these days. Her mother took her to a doctor who, after listening to all that Gillian didn’t do at school, asked to talk to her mother alone, outside the room. Before exiting the room however, he switched on the radio and then asked Gillian’s mother to observe her daughter from outside. Gillian’s mother was stunned to see that the minute they left the room, Gillian started dancing and jiving to the music. The doctor told her mother that the little girl didn’t have any particular disorder but that she was a dancer and needed to go to dancing school. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sir Robinson told this story as a way to illustrate how our current education system seems to be completely geared towards conditioning our children in one way and eventually erasing all creativity out of our systems. Just as education seems to program us to function in a particular way, organisations also tend to celebrate conformity over individuality, while professing the need for more innovation. There is a famous Japanese saying that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down, implying that any individuality is quickly suppressed in favour of conformity. We have all heard and enjoyed tales of the second world war where the army used to put chefs to man machine guns and trained pilots, serving up food. But are organisations really all that different?

There are numerous instances of organisations losing out on creative people purely because of the fact that they are unable to provide the leeway that creativity requires. Expecting everyone to work in the same manner is a surefire way of driving innovation and creativity from the organisation. While I understand the need for organisations to ensure that everyone conforms to certain core values, I also believe that only when people have the freedom to work and contribute in uniquely different ways can organisations truly innovate. Steve Jobs maintained that Apple worked like a start-up even when it was a huge corporation. This start-up mentality needs to be fostered, not just by paying lip-service to innovation and creativity while having tight bureaucratic oversight over every little aspect, but by putting the right people in the right positions and then letting their creativity take over.

Anything else and organisational innovation just becomes an academic exercise!

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