Corporations need creativity. Yet hierarchies, processes and rules squish free thinking. So what can be done?


Liz, February 10, 2017

Years ago, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I went to a talk in the science tent where authors talked about the number one need for creativity: Getting views and approaches from outside your own discipline.

The best ideas came, they said, when different ways of thinking came together.

And this week, we heard an interesting extension of that argument – that of course bringing ideas together is important… but it has to be done in a spirit and culture of collaboration.

So where does that culture of collaboration come from?

Listening to Vodafone’s Head of Product, Peter Terry-Brown, speaking this week, we got an interesting perspective…

Vodafone has been researching the future of technology and work. Because they know that the volume of messages they handle in a day at the moment will become the number they deal with in a minute in about five years’ time.

As part of this, they’ve been assessing different groups on their ability to solve problems. Through the assessments, they scored the groups on:

  • Collaboration and inclusivity
  • Task achievement and speed
  • Team enjoyment

The groups that solved problems quickly, effectively and imaginatively all scored highly for “collaboration and inclusivity”.

And the best performing group – by far – were the 13-14 year-old online gamers, whose collaboration scores were through the roof. This, said Peter, was because this group is used to collaborating online and using technology to do it.

These are the famed digital natives – the kids who’ve grown up with and take technology for granted. By 2020, they’ll account for 50% of the workforce.

So does this mean that in the near future, there’ll be an explosion of creativity and collaboration in corporations across the world?

No. Not necessarily – and here’s why:

Recent graduates were also a group that Vodafone studied. These people are also millennials – people who’ve only known life with the internet and advanced technology.

But the processes and hierarchies of higher education had already bashed some of the creativity – and ability to collaborate – out of them.

We see this frequently when we train teams to move to more unified, brand-aligned approaches to communication.

You start off expecting younger people to be more open to change, and to have more gusto about doing things differently. But then you learn – recent graduates actually tend to be rigidly stuck in “their” ways of doing things. Why? Because a) they’ve just come out of a system that has rewarded them and told them they’re brilliant for doing things in a way that passes exams – and b) because they haven’t got enough life experience yet to know that nothing’s forever.

It’s usually easier to persuade someone who’s been in the workforce for 30+ years to change than it is a recent graduate. Even if Vodafone seems to have found that their 13 or 14-year-old selves might have been more willing to try different things and to work together.

So the bright kids of today won’t necessarily set the world on fire. Not unless something changes so that we can stop hierarchies, rules, processes and silos getting in the way.

And while that’s a change that most definitely needs to happen in the workplace – it probably also needs to start in education.

We need to stop putting process on a pedestal and instead begin treating it like the enabler it should be.

Because it’s when process and technical skill become the only important things in organisations that we create silos, we stop communicating and we stop pulling in the same direction.

We live in an increasingly fluid world. The ways we work, the ways we organise our corporations, have to become fluid to keep pace.

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