Is Organization the Enemy of Creativity?
In the May issue of Inc., a reader, Elaine Ellis, poses a great question: Is creativity stifled by organization or is it easier to be creative at a company that is extremely well run?"
The way she phrases the question to some degree defines the answer. Of course it is easier to be creative in a "well run" company because it is easier to get things done and to experiment. Truly creative people don't baulk at every restraint; the best people I've ever worked with understood the necessity and found structure provoked them to do richer and more daring work.
Prize-winning playwrights appreciate that their broadcast work has to run to time. Great painters appreciate the demands of specific spaces. Michelangelo's David is the incredible work of art that it is because the sculptor had to work around a flaw running through his marble block. Constraints often provoke wildly original and unexpected work that complete freedom would never generate.
But inside Ellis's question is, I think, another important question: Does focus on perfect processes displace concern for originality and innovation? The truth is that it can. If you are more focused on getting the paperwork right than on the product that paperwork supports, then you will bleed your creative people dry by making them work on the wrong stuff. If you take too much time arguing about the perfect design for the mailroom, your creatives may lose sight of where revenue comes from. So the real challenge with process is: Is it good enough?
Many companies suffer from managerial narcissism. They are so obsessed with internal workings they completely lose sight of customers, the market, and the value that they provide. This is an almost inevitable part of an entrepreneur's trajectory. You start a business because the market has given you an idea. At that moment, you are very engaged by all that is outside the business. But as your company grows more complex, its internal operations demand attention. Before you know where you are, your engagement outside has turned inside. You may lost sight of why you started the company in the first place. You can start to hate your job.
But of course the opposite can happen. The love affair with chaos can last too long. Easy things stay hard and effort that could go into thinking and collaboration gets diverted to basic functioning. Strangely, the overly bureaucratic company and the chaotic company share the same problem: It just gets too hard to get things done.
Process doesn't have to be perfect. It needs merely to be functional. Internal forms don't have to be objects of beauty and meetings don't have to be masterminded by Cecil B. DeMille. A truly well run company puts energy and emphasis on what matters to employees and customers and nothing else counts.
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.