Later this month I'm scheduled to deliver a keynote to an internal company conference for administrative professionals. The topic is culture for creativity. My "standard" talks typically focus on engineers, marketing people, and others in the organization who are the type of folks you consider when you think of innovation. You don't normally think of the administrative professional as related to a culture of creativity, but as the following will reveal, they play a significant role in it. In fact, four roles.
Tom Wujec has been facilitating the Marshmallow Challenge in many organizations, for many years. He has a 7-minute TED talk with more than 3.5 million views at the time of writing this article. I facilitated it myself with groups varying from middle-school kids to Fortune 500 executives, with consistent results. The Marshmallow Challenge is a creative teamwork exercise that examines how a team works together creatively to solve a challenge. In his TED talk, Wujec compared the performance of different demographic, age, and professional groups in solving the challenge. At 3:52 in that video, he shows that a team of CEOs were doing just a little better than the average, but when you added an executive admin to the team, that team performed significantly better. In fact, his chart showed close to 40% improvement. His explanation was that administrative assistants have special skills of facilitation. While executives continue to jockey for power and control, the assistant keeps them focused on the task at hand. In the company setting, the administrative assistant can help keep the executive focused on the important things.
2. Controlling Information
Executives are bombarded by emails and other forms of communications. They rely on the administrative assistant to screen some of it. Often, when I write an email to an executive, I get the reply from the assistant. Research of factors affecting creativity in organizations showed that free flow of information is critical to achieve such creativity. However, if the average employee receives 121 emails a day, it is safe to say that executives get more. Much more. As a result, it is almost left completely to the hands of the administrative assistant to determine what is more important, and what is less important. You don't expect the administrative assistant to know everything that's in the executive's head, or fully understand the technical or business aspects of every email or communication, but given a strong enough intuition, they are in a perfect position to make sure important information flows, and flows quickly.
The administrative assistant controls the executive's calendar, for the most part. In 2005, I was in the midst of trying to get an executive's support (and budget) for an important project, and I asked for a meeting with him. The assistant looked at his calendar, and scheduled it at his fist available opening, in the first week of September. The problem was that it was mid-July, and this meeting could not have waited 6 weeks. So, I walked to his office to speak with him. His assistant stopped me. I explained the importance of having the meeting much earlier than 6 weeks from now. She rescheduled it to the next morning. As a former executive myself, I know how little control I had over my calendar, and relied on my assistant to prioritize my time appropriately. I didn't expect her to know everything I knew, but I trusted her judgment and intuition. Prioritizing the important things is critical not only for creativity, but also for productivity and efficiency.
4. Back-Channel Network
Finally, one of the major impediments for creativity in organizations is the silo effect, and the NIH ("Not Invented Here") syndrome. Different groups tend to sometimes be competitive with others. Information is being blocked across organizational boundaries, and creativity is thus adversely impacted. However, the administrative assistants don't suffer from this problem. They network, sometimes better than the executives they work for. Whether at the coffee room, the copier room, the break room, or any other place--they don't live the competition between groups. They form a back-channel, ad-hoc network. As they share what their respective groups are working on, not necessarily in a way that would violate confidentiality or intentional compartmentalization, they help their peers in other groups know what's important. In fact, it was probably easier for me to schedule that meeting by having my assistant informally let the assistant for the executive I was trying to meet know how important this is. The key word is "informally." If my assistant believed that the meeting was really important to me, then, without me asking, she would have made sure her counterpart knew that. And that would make a much bigger impact.
Administrative professionals know all the shortcuts in the organization. One of the biggest impediments to creativity is bureaucracy. In one of my interviews for my doctoral study on creativity in Corporate America I found that bureaucracy, although created for perfectly good reasons such as coordination and compliance, slows creativity to a crawl. However, through their back-door network, administrative assistants know how to get things done. And quickly.
I'm sure I'm missing more ways in which administrative professionals affect creativity and productivity in the company. They are the "hidden force" that is often underestimated in its power to affect creativity. Don't underestimate that power. Harvest it.