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How to Kill Creativity, the Microsoft Way

Satya Nadella, the new CEO of Microsoft, says he wants to foster a culture of innovation. He'd best first get rid of its roadblocks.
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The new CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, says he has two priorities: inciting innovation and making work at Microsoft meaningful. Neither of these is simple. But the clear first step he can take is to stop all of those things that kill people's creativity. According to psychologists Teresa Amabile and Beth Hennessey, these are:

Working for an expected reward. This doesn't mean not paying people. But attaching bonuses to tasks and targets doesn't make them more inspiring. It makes them dreary.

Focusing on an expected evaluation. Tying targets to remuneration seems to make sense, but there's no reliable evidence anywhere that performance-related pay works. What it does is define and limit the territory in which minds feel free to wander--but mind wandering is the beginning of creativity.

Plenty of surveillance. A critical requirement for creativity is a sense of autonomy: the freedom to develop work that feels like mine. This is crucial not just to support free spirits but to ensure that, in teamwork, everyone feels that the team's work is his or hers, too. That's how you increase participation and lose passengers. Rigid oversight, by contrast, just means I don't have to be responsible--because the boss is.

Set up restricted choices. Give me a limited choice, and I'll give you a constrained answer. This can feel efficient, but it just guarantees that new ideas will be strangled at birth.

Create competitive situations. Microsoft's notorious forced ranking system is routinely blamed for the self-serving, unhelpful culture that has long characterized the company. Dismantling it has proved a first step, but it will take time before people accustomed to competing learn to trust and help one another. Equally important is eliminating the sense of departmental competition--for talent, for resources, for attention. But until that's gone, the spirit of innovation and collaboration will be much discussed, just never real.

Reflecting on this list, it's hard not to notice that every single thing that kills creativity is a standard feature of our school system. What that means is that all business leaders today face a striking challenge: undoing the work of decades.

Last updated: Feb 6, 2014

MARGARET HEFFERNAN

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.




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