The Creativity Productivity Paradox

"You can’t endorse a top-down authority structure and be serious about enhancing adaptability, innovation, or engagement." - Gary Hamel

Employers are facing a conundrum: a generational gap in job satisfaction.

Research seems to indicate that while Gen Z and millennial workers report higher job satisfaction, they’re more likely to be looking for new roles. In contrast, older generations are significantly less satisfied at work but will stay put, contributing to so-called ‘resenteeism’. As one of the report contributors notes “the best way to keep people engaged is to create a culture of continuous improvement where their team members are encouraged to seek out new projects and skills.”

Simply put, there isn’t a great deal of joy in most people’s work at the moment.

But why? As Dion Hinchcliffe writes, the typical worker is now able to be more creative than in almost any time before. “While middle managers and team leads of yore might say that strict control and direction is required to get the proper outcome, in today’s far more dynamic, fast changing, and innovation-driven times, this no longer makes nearly as much sense. Work is becoming almost entirely what we make of it. And this is a good thing that will unleash far more personal and professional fulfillment along with much greater innovation.”

If Dion is right, that the future of work is 1:1 personalised and fully customisable, then why does is seem to be that people appear to be working more and producing less.

The problem I guess, is the system itself. The way we work doesn’t work.

As organizations grow, they become more complex, and it becomes harder to manage them effectively without formal structures and procedures. A larger organization insists on more rules and procedures to maintain order and control over its operations and its people. In addition, the larger the organization, the more specialized roles become, which can lead to increased levels of bureaucracy to manage them effectively. The end result : complicatedness.

This desire (and I say desire rather than need) for consistency and standardization, for control and accountability, comes at a cost: reduced creativity and flexibility.

As Gary Hamel wrote in an almost 10 year old but evergreen post; “Most of us grew up in and around organizations that fit a common template. Strategy gets set at the top. Power trickles down. Big leaders appoint little leaders. Individuals compete for promotion. Compensation correlates with rank. Tasks are assigned. Managers assess performance. Rules tightly circumscribe discretion. This is the recipe for “bureaucracy,” the 150-year old mashup of military command structures and industrial engineering that constitutes the operating system for virtually every large-scale organization on the planet.”

As Dr Tim Baker outlines – there is a creativity paradox here too, instead of enabling new initiatives (something everyone says they want) the interaction between manager and employee does the exact opposite – it stops initiatives and makes the employee dependent on the manager.

  • Leaders generally DO want employees to show initiative.
  • Leaders invite initiatives but employees aren’t sure they are serious so they do nothing or they submit ideas that don’t get full backing
  • Leaders fill the void and take control and the employee scepticism is validated

As Tim writes “The process in other words makes proactive behaviour harder not easier. ”  Ultimately , the actions of the manager speak louder than the words they speak.

The productivity paradox: the more investment that is made in technology, worker productivity goes down instead of up.

The creativity paradox: the more leadership support that is provided the more employee creativity is stifled rather than released.

The number one thing I find employees are seeking when talking about their ideas is someone who will listen. Number two is permission to try something out. Number three is budget.

To solve the creativity productivity paradox we need to become permissionless organisations – ones who push decision-making and exploration out to the furthest edges of the business rather than power being maintained with the very people who need to step out of the way.

Related: Analysis Paralysis and the Threat to Innovation