The Day My Boss Killed Creativity. Are you making the same mistake?
I am a believer. I believe creativity can breakthrough scientific roadblocks, transform the way we live, and solve our toughest problems. I also believe creativity can be used to solve the day-to-day problems of a business, make incremental improvements to daily life, and develop new strategies for success.
During my career in the Air Force, I found myself face-to-face with a number of tough problems. Any success I achieved in doing my part to reassure NATO allies in the Baltics, develop the Afghan Air Force, or fight ISIS drone proliferation can be attributed to being open to creative solutions, tenacious, and fortunate to work with smart people who trusted me enough to share the creative ideas they hid from others.
I am inspired by stories of unequivocally innovative ideas. The Wright Brothers entered the race for the skies as amateurs with some reading on the subject and a desire to test a few theories. Less than four years later, their creative thinking allowed them to achieve what competitors with more education and funding could not. Born a slave, George Washington Carver wanted to improve the lives of poor farmers in the South and used creativity to create hundreds of uses for the peanut, among other discoveries like the value of crop rotation. Maya Angelou and other authors use creativity to change the way we see the world we live in. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos amassed fortunes and changed the way we live because of their ability to generate creative ideas and turn them into reality.
I am a believer.
I have read hundreds of articles, pored through stacks of books, listened to days of podcasts, wrote my own book and drafted dozens of articles about creativity, how our brains work, and the psychological forces that allow creativity to thrive in an organization.
I choose to believe the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the Secretary of the Air Force when they say innovation is a part of the Air Force culture, when they link the today’s Airmen to innovations of Kitty Hawk, and when they say our national defense depends on innovative ideas.
I know you can’t innovate unless you create, and I believe our creativity is the asymmetric advantage we have over adversaries who maintain power by controlling thought.
I believe ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other murdering groups are terrifically creative. They use malicious creativity to turn toy drones into weapons, bicycles into bombs, and use both traditional and social media to advance their evil messages. I believe those who choose to work for good rather than evil should be able to wield creative power at least as competently as these terrorist groups do.
But, there came a day when, regardless of my belief, it became impossible for me to be creative at work. My organization needed to adapt to changes in technology, geopolitics, and our national-level strategy. We needed to step outside of our comfortable complacency carefully constructed over decades. In a changing security environment, comfort should not be the main goal. Coffins are built for comfort.
Without conflict, there is no creativity. Innovative ideas of how the future might be clash with the silk-lined comfort of the known. Sometimes opposing creative ideas crash together, and in the right environment, brilliance lies in the ideation aftermath. Orville and Wilbur frequently clashed and argued so strenuously as to convince the other of their argument and ended no closer to resolution but with each adopting the other’s previous position.
The realities of conflict and creativity caught up to me in another rigidly structured meeting with assigned seats and assigned ways of thinking based on job title. The same ideas that failed to pass muster with the “Big Boss” were being re-hashed. The tired ideas weren’t convincing a few days ago because they lacked boldness, weren’t grounded in reason, and weren’t creative.
I believed I was in an environment that tolerated the pursuit of something better. I believed it was my duty to offer better, more creative, ideas than the failing ones we continued to produce. I believed our team could be better if we took the time to understand what we were trying to accomplish and point our big minds towards a common goal. I believed I was being disloyal to my Boss if, in a small meeting of the organization’s most senior leaders, I couldn’t offer my best, most creative thinking.
I was wrong.
The day after the meeting, I was told the Boss was disappointed I disagreed with the group. The Boss didn’t believe I was disrespectful (I wasn’t). The Boss didn’t believe my ideas lacked merit (would have been a fair position to take). The Boss didn’t necessarily believe the status quo was the right approach (also a fair position for a leader to take). The Boss didn’t want disagreement.
What do you do with that?
I can’t stop my mind from being creative. I can’t stop myself from coming up with ideas (good and bad) to make our organization better and advance our national defense strategy. I don’t have all the answers, but I have a piece of the answer. My piece can be combined with my coworker’s, and we can do great things. I know because I have done it…over and over.
I can’t stop caring that we are failing. I know I care because I feel the anger and frustration of failed potential.
But, that day it became irrational for me to be creative at work. Coming up with an idea is something that happens inside our brains. Bringing that idea into the light of day is a study in applied psychology. Expressing an idea requires vulnerability. Expressing dissent requires more vulnerability and incurs a risk of losing status in the group. When the opportunity for benefit is low and the cost is high, offering creative ideas is irrational for anyone in the group.
When the Boss specifically prohibits dissent, the organization sacrifices the ideas that would create a new future.
In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Research-Technology Management, innovation in a culture where problems are poorly defined and leaders are risk-averse is enabled when the organization actively encourages creativity. Encouragement can take many forms. Demonstrating gratitude for new ideas, recognizing creativity in the workplace, and actively soliciting creative ideas are ways of demonstrating organizational encouragement for creativity. Responding to private dissent by sending an admonishment message is not.
Employees at corporate giant Colgate recognize creativity with wooden nickels, small tokens whose only worth lies in the value of recognizing a person who was willing to offer a good idea. Software producer Atlassian allows employees to take “ShipIt Days” where they can work on any project, literally anything, with any team they choose…but, they must deliver results in 24 hours. Japanese factory workers produce thousands of creative process improvement ideas each year through a long-established culture of continuous improvement. Innovative organizations are rewarded with creativity because they reward creativity…not with money, but by attaching value to the bold act of offering creative ideas.
Harvard creativity researcher Teresa Amabile found innovative organizations were characterized by open, active communication habits. They fairly evaluated ideas…even ideas that were assessed as failures. They eschewed “turf battles,” destructive criticism, strict management control, and excessive formal procedures.
An organization encouraging creativity will reap creativity. An organization encouraging acceptance of the status quo will die.
Above all, a leader in an innovative organization must set a path, communicate a vision for innovation, and allow themselves to tolerate ambiguity. When done right, it is awe-inspiring. In a NASA legend, President Kennedy toured a facility and met a custodian cleaning the floors late in the evening. The President asked him why he was working so late, and the janitor answered, “I’m not mopping the floors; I’m putting a man on the moon.”
Kennedy set a vision so clearly, and NASA leadership built a culture so completely, that every person from the astronauts to the engineers, secretaries, human computers, and even the janitor was on-board for the challenge of innovating their way to the moon.
Ironically, Kennedy’s leadership also led to the classic example of “groupthink” just a few years earlier in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Irving Janus used the term groupthink to answer Kennedy’s question, “How could we have been so stupid?” According to Janus, symptoms of groupthink arise when group members “adopt a soft line of criticism, even in their own thinking. At their meetings, all the members are amiable and seek complete concurrence on every important issue, with no bickering or conflict to spoil the cozy ‘we-feeling’ atmosphere.”
The presence of conflict doesn’t mean the absence of civility. Researchers studying conflict and creativity in groups found when ideas (rather than the people who produced them) are criticized, the reward is ideas that are more innovative. Leaders who establish a culture that substitutes “Your idea is not good” with “That is not a good idea” are able to foster an environment where new ideas can grow.
In my organization, this didn’t happen. Conflict was prohibited. A few weeks after the meeting where I dissented, major parts of the organization were split off into other offices. The organization continues to struggle in the wake of those changes, some of the best talent left to pursue other jobs, and the Air Force is no closer to a solution for the problems we failed to solve.
As a leader in that organization, I own a piece of our failure. I could have been more diligent in the early stages of the process where attitudes are more open to new ideas. I could have pursued more avenues for discussion with team members in smaller venues where there would have been less pressure to conform with the group and to agree with the Boss.
I am making amends by sharing my knowledge of the creative process to help colleagues understand how to allow creativity to thrive and how easy it is to snuff it out for good. I talk to anyone who will listen. I write these articles, and I do my best to encourage those I work with to express their ideas and act on them.
Above all, when disagreement comes, I do my best to allow it and to channel it towards a new idea. If you think you have a better idea, execute it, and I will do everything I can to help you succeed. A person’s internal motivation to make their own idea work to achieve a problem I have properly defined is far stronger than my ability to lead them to do something they believe is fatally flawed from the start.
In those cases where lives are at risk, responsibility comes with rank. But, in day-to-day business, even in the military, value should be measured by the possibility of ideas rather than shiny baubles we wear on our shoulders. If creative ideas stay locked away safe from criticism or conflict, all that remains is the thinking that created the very problem you are trying to solve.
Dan Manning is the CEO of Firepower Concepts, LLC, a firm helping businesses and non-profits apply creativity to solve their toughest problems. Combining academic study with techniques refined over a career as a fighter pilot and warrior-diplomat, Dan unleashes the transforming power of creative thinking to do what could not be done before. Dan is available for keynotes, team training, consulting, and guided ideation. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the opinions of the United States Air Force or the Department of Defense.