Control kills creativity
October 31, 2022

Control kills creativity

When we become too focused on process and forget how important it is to think about work creatively, we stifle are stifling the ability of people to do things differently, reducing productivity, and making it more difficult for our businesses to grow successfully.

A few years ago, while working for a global talent consultancy, I took on the leadership of a global project to ‘productise’ the consulting offer and drive better pricing and contracting. I thought it was a great opportunity: a meaty project where I could make a significant impact on a global scale. Very exciting and an opportunity I grabbed with both hands.

On paper, we could absolutely standardise our solutions, driving greater efficiency and profitability from the work we were delivering. Better solutions for our customers. And even greater value for our business because we could use the standard processes to scale up quickly.

Why standardise?

When businesses are ready to grow, leaders feel they need to take more control. The usual way to do this is to follow exactly the journey my previous employer took. You introduce standards and processes, splitting tasks into the most efficient way of doing things to minimise cost and maximise output.

So – on paper – great! It makes commercial sense and it’s also what many businesses do.

But the underlying assumption is worthy of further discussion. In the 1960s, Douglas McGregor proposed two extreme management assumptions: Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X assumed workers were lazy, motivated by fear and needed to be coerced to deliver results. Theory Y, by contrast, assumed workers were highly creative when given recognition, could thrive on responsibility, and were motivated by self-development and contribution. You can read more on this in our blog Can work be good for the soul?

Does it work?

Going back to my story: when we started to implement the standardisation plan, we talked to lots of teams in different markets. All these people already had extremely creative ways of delivering the services – ways that suited their clients and gave them the ability to be competitive in their local markets.  

But with the leadership team insisting on standardisation and centralisation all the teams had to change their ways of working, disrupting their client work, reducing motivation and causing damage to internal relations.

This focus on centralisation and efficiency and these types of controls ultimately destroys the creativity that people bring to their work.

Firms tend to go down this ‘cookie-cutter’ way of doing things, which eradicates creativity and ends up with people becoming less engaged in their work, less productive and even leaving the business. Putting control and profit ahead of people ends up costing businesses money and slowing growth – exactly the opposite of what leaders intend.

There is another way

While the efficiency and standardisation model is the go-to option for many growing businesses, there is another – and in my opinion better way. This is about involving people in planning and decisions, experimenting with new ways of working, learning from mistakes and encouraging teams to try new things.

If you enable teams to have autonomy and bring creativity, people will have ownership of their tasks and how they fit into the organisation. They will be more motivated and engaged, they will encourage people to join the teams, and your growth will follow.

For example, if humans only ever focused on ‘efficiency’ and ‘standardisation’, we wouldn’t have the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the invention of electricity or The Beatles! We need people who are prepared to think differently, take risks, challenge the norms and explore and invent.

Why create and grow a business that suppresses and constrains all that amazing potential? Why not take a different view and create a culture and environment where people know they can bring their creative energy and spirit every day?

It may feel like a brave move – but sustainable growth requires courage, vision and foresight. There’s plenty of help available, and you’ll find that the whole process is more rewarding, and marks you out as an entrepreneur who really means business.

Why not book a meeting with me to find out more? You may benefit from our Leadership Intensive offer, or our range of Employee experience and culture programmes.

Written by Barry McNeill | Founder and Managing Director of Work Extraordinary

Barry has over 25 years supporting leaders and teams to be more effective in driving business outcomes, such as growth, customer service and impact. He and his team have helped numerous founders, founding teams and growing organisations to develop new ways of working to achieve scaleup growth, enhanced culture, improved operational effectiveness and customer impact. You can connect with Barry through the social channels on this website.

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