Six symptoms of creatively-dysfunctional organisations


Relegating creativity to child’s play is to underestimate both its nature and value

In simple terms, creativity is the art of out-thinking and outgunning the competition. It is necessary every time the obvious answers won't resolve a difficult question. It is the power behind every new product and service, or behind every successful strategy.

It is the responsibility of the entire senior leadership team to nurture creativity. But it is especially vested in HR. This is because HR drives the people agenda. And creativity can only ever be powered by people.

So want to stop the rot, creatively speaking? You need to spot the rot first. Here are six symptoms of creatively-dysfunctional businesses. Tackling them is a stepping stone to building what we at Corporate Punk call an ‘impact culture’ – one that unlocks your people to work at their peak every day.

1. Presentation not conversation

Is your business in love with PowerPoint? Are your meetings an endless procession of charts and ‘decks’? Do your people sit blithely reading words from a screen while licking chocolate off biscuits, before offering a pithy verdict and shuffling to the next room?

If so, you’ve fostered an environment that is not conducive to creative thought. A rule of thumb: you should spend only 20% of your meeting time on storytelling. 80% should involve thinking about how you’re going to navigate with integrity through ambiguous circumstances and make new things happen.

2. Meeting misuse

Death by PowerPoint aside, meetings often bring considerable pain for other reasons. Unhealthy politics, information drudgery, mindless governance... the list goes on. All are creativity killers. We’ve all heard of the no-biscuit meetings, the stand-ups, and the one-point agenda. We dread a colleague asking us to perform a Japanese management technique she’s read about in an in-flight magazine. If you want to make your meetings creative don’t bother with gimmicks. Do these things instead:

  • Stop carrying dead weight
  • Make sure introverts have a voice
  • Create room for new thinking
  • Don’t tolerate showboating and contrarianism
  • Stop allowing discussions to go on too long
  • Operate to a clear agenda, where one issue gets tackled at once
  • Agree to clear action points and follow them up
  • Consider different meeting modes (all meetings aren’t created equal)
  • Stop allowing everyone to collapse into their usual roles
  • Don’t ignore signs of distress.

3. Emotional distress

When people have their creativity crushed they will be in emotional distress. Their mood and behaviour will go through a process of decline, in a similar pattern to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance).

Look for these patterns in your organisation and you will find them. Could you change your review process to examine your people's emotional state in this way? What sort of insights might you uncover?

4. Foot-dragging

Is everyone talking about it but no-one getting it done? Are people saying one thing then doing another? This is a phenomenon known as foot-dragging: passive resistance to new ideas.

Foot-dragging happens when the culture doesn’t enable open disagreement but it exists anyway. Conflict is necessary for creativity. It’s also healthy, provided you can resolve it in a fast and effective fashion. Remember that passive resistance is nothing more than active resistance in disguise.

5. Myopia

This is where the perceived pressure of doing business means that an organisation cannot see beyond the daily grind. When it does look further it can see only as far as its immediate competitors. Limited horizons do not give rise to fresh thinking or new ideas. But taking a good look at related categories, and at some unrelated ones, can be an inspiring thing to do.

Another way of putting it: optimisation is all very well but you can only optimise what you’re already doing.

6. Self-referentialism

The comedian Eddie Izzard once observed that the British empire collapsed “like a flan in a cupboard” because everyone was too busy congratulating each other to notice the signs of decay.

Teams that preoccupy themselves with team politics or performance fall into this booby-trap. They stop looking at their clients, the wider firm, and the huge threats that may be circling the business. As a result they lose the impetus for creativity.

Phil Lewis is the founder and managing director of organisational performance practice Corporate Punk