FranklinCovey Consultant Blogs | Todd Wangsgard | July, 2009
Innovation, creativity, and risk-taking have long been propped up as essential ingredients to an organizations’ ability to gain competitive advantage in the modern business milieu. And yet most employees will tell you that their workplace isn’t exactly as tolerant of risk as popular rhetoric might suggest. It appears that most individuals and organizations experience a love-hate relationship with the hard reality that accompanies true innovation – the need to experience failure, often repeatedly, before we experience the breakthrough of success.
If creativity is so important, why isn’t it more pervasive in formal group interactions and individual projects and initiatives? Conduct your own experiment, and I believe you’ll discover a key contributor to the standard climate of caution. When you ask a classroom full of eager Kindergarteners, “Which of you is an artist?” every hand goes up! And yet, when that same question is posed three years later to the same class of now seasoned pupils, a slightly more reticent group of 3rd graders isn’t as eager to identify with that same label. Why?? What happened in those intervening years? Perhaps some children are told their art is “good,” that it “conforms” to conventional expectations. “Look! Johnny’s tree looks just like a tree! Aren’t you a good artist!?” Yet Jenny is told, “You went a little outside the lines. Besides, trees aren’t supposed to be purple.” This oft unintended reinforcement, repeated over time, cements into the minds of impressionable children what they “can” or “can’t” do – what they should or shouldn’t do – who they are and are not.
Perhaps as adults we need only forget what we’ve been told about our abilities to uncover that hidden artist who’s been hiding all these years. You say, “I’m left-brained – much more logical in my approach to life.” Says who? Maybe you just haven’t allowed your more innovative nature to express itself. “I could never come up with new and different ideas like my co-worker!” Is it possible, you’ve never taken the time or put forth the effort to be deliberately different?
I propose that one key barrier to more innovation, expressed creativity, and calculated risk-taking in the workplace stems from the absence of such expressed values in the organization and/or the misalignment of stated values with day-to-day practice.
For example, if an individual employee personally recognizes the value of being more creative in her work, but reads the company’s plaque of narrowly defined values on the wall – Integrity, Service, Quality - she may hesitate to take much-needed risk, because it doesn’t appear to “fit.” Then again, even if Innovation appears in the list, when an employee’s boss tends to micromanage and behave in ways that forbids any actions “outside the lines,” it doesn’t really matter what’s hanging on the wall. That employee (and thousands of others like her) will eventually find their way to discouragement, disengagement, and literal resignation.
Does your organization explicitly include creativity and risk-taking among its values? If so, can you see it in day-to-day interactions among associates? Highly effective people who are truly interdependent regularly engage in ways that seek out the diversity and strengths in everyone involved in every assignment. It’s their M.O. They encourage robust dialogue that stimulates the hearts and minds of all parties. And even though they may uncover conflicting ideas and encounter failure in those divergent discussions, they also tend to synthesize breakthrough solutions more often than the masses. In what ways will you keep these values on the wall and alive in your actions?
In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey recounts a story about turning over the yard-care responsibilities at his house to his young son. “Green and clean,” he explains, are the criteria for success in this new job. When after 2 weeks his son still hasn’t fully accepted the responsibility of this new assignment, Stephen shares a moment of exasperation when he reminds himself of the deeper purpose of his calling as a father – “Raise boys, not grass.” This story came to mind recently, during a moment of frustration of my own.
Monday morning, I found myself in the middle of a steep learning curve, pretending to be a stone mason. I was with my 9-year-old son, Conner, at the house my father is single-handedly remodeling (re-building, is perhaps more accurate) to help Dad finish up the stone façade that would decorate the front of his house. He and Conner were about 75% finished affixing the beautifully cut faux stones to the wall and had asked me to squeeze freshly mixed mortar out of what amounts to an over-sized cake decorating cone into the spaces between the stones. This also requires smoothing out the mortar with a skinny trowel, attempting to even out any lumps and fill in all the gaps. Believe me – this was harder than it sounds.
About 20 minutes into my effort, the thought crossed my mind, “Gee! Why don’t we just hire a couple day-laborers with masonry experience to come and do this; then the three of us can go do something fun?!” We could have been doing anything more fun than working on the house, such as hiking, fishing, or carousing at the local amusement park. This thought no sooner crossed my mind, when it occurred to me what we were really engaged in. This wasn’t just about the work that needed to be done on the house. My dad would certainly not be set back in his construction progress, if Conner and I hadn’t spent those measly 2 ½ hours helping out. Instead, this was much more about building something together. This was about creating a lasting, tangible monument of sorts. This was, more importantly, about learning lessons of hard work and building relationships between three generations of Wangsgards.
Besides, doing something constructive with his hands is my dad’s idea of fun. And to be accompanied by his son and grandson in the process is something he’d much rather do than spend the day engaged in more shallow forms of amusement.
What are you building today? What is the state of your most important relationships? In what ways can you more efficiently “sharpen the saw” and satisfy the need for renewal in all four human dimensions: physical, mental, social/emotional and spiritual?
On second thought, I enjoy “masonry!” There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than molding the mortar of time into the spaces between my most precious possessions – my family, friends, colleagues, and clients.