Creativity: The Wavy Lines of Leadership

The Wavy Lines of Leadership“I encourage my employees to think outside the box,” the smug retort of a true manager rang out.  As a class, a dozen front-line leaders were discussing the virtues of innovation in improving productivity.

From the back of the room, the class introvert, who ironically had better team production numbers than nearly all the others in the room, stated, “The problem is you’re seeing solutions as related to a box at all.”

For a second, the conversation stopped completely.  I’m not sure if it was the fact that this particular leader had said anything at all that took everyone aback, or if it was the profound observation she had made.

It doesn’t really matter what derailed the conversation.  She was absolutely right!  Why have we insisted on describing solutions as either inside or outside a box?  Solutions rarely conform to any particular shape, be that a square, circle, triangle, or parallelogram.  The best solutions have a unique shape unto themselves, or better yet, they are rather shapeless and constantly adapting to ever changing environmental conditions.

How many of us have sat through Six Sigma process improvement sessions?  What typically makes those sessions so abnormally painful?  My experience has been that it’s less a question of whether or not there is value in understanding the steps in established or ideal-state processes.  Rather, it’s a matter of trying to force processes into a standardized, uniform box that ignores the realities and lack of predictability in which our businesses operate.

In observing just such a session within a small manufacturing plant recently, I was struck by the extent to which the company distrusted its front-line leaders.  By attempting to establish inflexible standards, tools, and procedures for every little aspect of operations, they essentially looked to strip leaders of all subjectivity in leading and influencing their followers.  The root cause…one of two things.  Either the company had the wrong people in leadership positions, or they simply didn’t trust them enough to do the right thing.

Either way, this was a performance issue, not a process issue.  Too often, organizations turn to standardization as a way to avoid the tough issue of accountability.  If senior leaders are not willing or able to have tough accountability discussions, they instead tend to turn to process tightening.  By creating boxes (or triangles, or Venn diagrams), they attempt to build accountability, thus absolving themselves from having to actually lead their teams.

In the words of the Monday Night Football crew…..”C’mon, Man!”

3 thoughts on “Creativity: The Wavy Lines of Leadership

  1. Wow. Great insight. The first quote is priceless (and repeatable!). What do you think caused the distrust of the front-line leaders at that manufacturing plant? Have you seen any company break that cycle of distrust?

  2. I think with that particular organization (and not uncommon), the leaders relied on simply saying they valued innovation and creativity, but they didn’t walk the talk. Their words encouraged employees to “think outside of the box,” but their actions (or more likely their reactions) shouted the exact opposite to the employees. It’s really about authentic leadership, I think. Creativity and innovation, along with the inherent failures that will come at times, need to be celebrated and used as learning experiences, not for punitive measure. When that happens, the leadership “say-do” gap shrinks and the “cycle of distrust” begins to break down.

    Too often, leaders rely on catch phrases or overused anecdotes (“think outside the box”) as an alternative to really changing their own actions and reactions in a way that will reinforce a culture of trust, innovation, and creativity, I think.

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