Ever since Clayton Christensen published his doctoral dissertation in 1992, later published as his bestseller The Innovator's Dilemma, research showed that  startup companies are much more innovative than mature, established companies. That's why disruptive technologies typically come from startup companies, while mature companies lose their market share, and often their livelihood.

Somehow Corporate America kills both innovation and creativity, and there is really a very simple reason for that, that both Harvard Professors Christensen and Teresa Amabile pointed out. Christensen defined the innovator's dilemma as the fact that "the logical, competent decisions of [mature company's] management that are critical to the success of their companies are also the reasons why they lose their positions of leadership," and Amabile wrote that "...creativity gets killed [in mature companies] much more often than it gets supported... ...creativity is undermined unintentionally every day in work environments that were established--for entirely good reasons--to maximize business imperatives such as coordination, productivity, and control."

Research also showed that employees need a certain climate to exist for them to be creative. One of the main factors in that climate is the autonomy given to employees, which includes the ability to deviate from plans, lose some of the control structures in the organization, take exemptions from bureaucracy and rigid processes, and get exposed to the "big picture" rather than only to a small piece of it. Why is it so hard for large companies to give employees the autonomy they so desperately need?

Autonomy may cause chaos

When each employee pursues their own path and try different things in a small, startup company, the CEO can still keep track of what is going on in the entire company. There is only a handful of employees, and typically only one main product or project. However, in a public company with 30,000 employees and hundreds, if not thousands of product lines, having each employee take the freedom they need from company processes and structure could get out of hand, and managers can easily lose control, leading to chaos. That is a risk that managers are simply not willing to accept.

The company is subject to increasing regulations

Even before Sarbanes Oxley, regulation keeps creeping up on companies, and especially large, public companies. There is no doubt that companies brought this on themselves through operating in the grey area of the law. As a result, quality, reporting, and operating regulations have increased, to the point that employees sometimes need to spend more time reporting what they are about to do and what they have done than actually doing it. Reporting is not a creativity-inspiring activity. It may improve productivity and efficiency, but those are not the same as creativity.

The quality movement focuses on what the customers want, rather than what they need

Part of quality philosophies and regulations such as TQM and ISO9000 is the translation of what the customer wants into what the company is building. As a result, employees in companies focus more on what the customer specifically asked for, than what the customer really needs to be successful. Front line employees spend more time interviewing customers and documenting what they want, rather than try to understand their business and offer solutions that the customers may not have asked for, or showed interest in, even if those solutions are better for the customers' success. After all, you will never get fired for launching and developing a failing project, sinking millions of dollars, if you actually have a customer who asked for it. You may (or may not) be a hero for developing something the customer needed but didn't ask for, but if you are wrong--you may lose your job. So why even try?

You see, there are perfectly good reasons for not giving employees autonomy, for maintaining the bureaucracy and processes large companies have. The loss of autonomy and thus creativity that results from it--well, this is just an unfortunate side effect...

 

Published on: Jun 15, 2016
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