In every conference at which I speak, with every corporate client with whom I consult, I hear people say that we need to achieve a greater balance between the art and the science of work, particularly when the conversation turns to innovation. But we feel stuck, unable to make the changes we know we must. A Boston Consulting Group study asked CEOs where innovation ranked as a strategic priority. Seventy-nine percent said it was a top three priority, and you have to wonder why that number wasn’t one hundred percent since you could argue that innovation is the only protection for remaining relevant. So, innovation is not an advantage; it is the advantage! However, a McKinsey study reported that ninety-four percent of employees say their organization is ineffective at innovation. I’m not sure that there is a bigger gap in our companies between how critical CEOs think something is and how bad we are at it, between what we know we need to do and what we actually do.
A significant factor behind this knowing-doing gap is that we’ve been trained as leaders since the beginning of the Industrial Age to push out those very human qualities that would better enable our organizations to navigate these turbulent waters: inspiration, innovation, adaptability, empowerment, curiosity. While business has worked very hard to drive these qualities out with its incessant preference to value only those merits which can be acutely measured, the arts have always toiled to drive them in.
Yet the reason I am optimistic today is that we happen to live during one of those inflection points of history. Scientific management has had its day in the sun, making many executives and investors admittedly very wealthy. We now require a new Renaissance, a flowering of interchange between the arts and business whereby we recreate work around human fulfilment. In the privileged position of a consultant and educator to executives, I hear from leaders all around the world who are feeling an unprecedented pressure to reinvent how they lead, learn, operate, structure, incentivize, hire, promote and communicate. Business must reflect the needs of its employees, customers and society in better ways than those we have experienced. If the leadership of the corporate estate requires reimagining, then the new solutions will come less from the science of management and more from the art.
If you’re creative and you know it, raise your hand
If we’re going to adopt more practices from the arts in order to be fit for tomorrow, we might well ask if we have sufficiently innate creativity to accomplish this goal. In facilitating workshops on innovation for business, I usually begin the sessions by asking, ‘Please raise your hand if you do not regularly think of yourself as a creative person.’ Almost inevitably, I’m confronted with a forest of arms signalling agreement with this statement. But if we reflect on our childhoods, we intuitively understand that the exact opposite would be true. As children, we are supremely creative human beings.
The late Professor George Land at the University of Minnesota assessed sixteen hundred people over their development from children to adults on their ‘genius’ levels of creativity, defined as ‘divergent thinking.’ Research had already established that high IQ and creative aptitude are not correlated. At ages three to five, ninety-eight percent of the test subjects scored as creative geniuses. At ages eight to ten, that percent plummeted to thirty-two. At ages thirteen to fifteen, only ten percent were geniuses, and by age twenty-five, a paltry two percent were still creative paragons. Notice that by the time these children reached adulthood, their creative capacity completely and exactly inverted (Greg Orme, The Human Edge). At the youngest ages, only two percent were not creative geniuses, and as adults only two percent still were geniuses.
These results may not surprise us. When I discuss this study, most people respond that school and society are to blame, incentivizing conformity and ‘one right answer’ thinking. If that diagnosis is true, then the solution is apparent as well. For us individually as adults and collectively as organizations, we must rediscover at least some of the rhythms, routines, incentives, and habits that we practiced as children. For starters, I’m sure we all remember that a typical day as small children included an abundance of art and play. Isn’t it funny that the corporations that we celebrate today, from Google to Kickstarter to Pixar to LEGO, create those same environments of art and play in their cultures that most of our organizations work terribly hard to suppress?
Human expression to human engineering
In humankind’s quest to perfect the process by which we create wealth, the previous ménage à trois among science, business and art became a cosier domestic arrangement between science and commerce, elbowing the arts into the periphery in terms of the habits, goals and philosophies of leadership and organizational life. This paucity of artistic creativity and inspiration is a symptom of the Industrial Revolution, which perfected the philosophy of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management, whose hypothesis was that the way in which we organize business is to drive efficiency in and variance out, implying a human labourer is but a cog in an industrial machine. Taylorism was specifically perfect for the manufacturing heyday of a century ago when Henry Ford once famously quipped, ‘Why is it every time I hire a pair of hands a brain comes attached?’ Over a short period of time, the skyscape of business lost its constellation of artistic exploration – a critical mindset laid to waste. We dehumanised our companies in perfecting Taylorism and combined that philosophy with the obeyance-driven, hierarchical architecture of the Roman legions. Yet today, we lament that we lack humanity in our work life. Why are we surprised?
The fault does not reside with our front-line employees but with our leaders and their philosophy of governance from an era and context that effectively ended half a century ago. Some predicted that the digital revolution or information age was to herald a nirvana of wealth and contentment. But while the technologies and industries changed, the manner in which we organised work did not, so work-life continues to be unliveable. The German sociologist Max Weber remarked, ‘The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.’ (Anthony Cascardi, The Subject of Modernity) We still find ourselves in a cage of our own making, unprepared for a world in which the need for humanising is increasing by the hour.
Therefore, adaptability, creativity, and inspiration are the leadership qualities that our organizations require today. Both employer and employee need these capabilities now, and we don’t have centuries anymore to develop them. Making these qualities preeminent in our organizations is the next revolution. You can be at the forefront of this changing tide. In rediscovering art and play, two virtuous habits that spark and nurture those characteristics of innovation including divergent thinking, collaboration, mindfulness, inspiration, exploring untraditional ideas and picturing the future, we uncover anew the state of mind and spirit that we have always naturally possessed. We begin to encourage an environment that allows our companies collectively to discover what we know individually that we have always craved.
Sparking Success: Why Every Leader Needs to Develop a Creative Mindset by Adam Kingl is published by Kogan Page, available now. Adam is on the faculty of the UCL School of Management and Hult International Business School.