Want to develop a culture of creativity in your IT organization? You might need to change your current thinking about efficiency, solving problems and leadership.
Step 1: Forget Efficiency
Did I say that this was going to take a little bit of faith and a willingness to break the rules? One of the most entrenched ideas in our industry is the idea that we need to create a highly efficient organization. We have gone to great lengths to measure everything and apply principles from ITIL and Lean Six Sigma to remove errors and inefficiencies from our operating practices. That's all great stuff, but we also have to recognize that while these management approaches are very effective at producing consistent, repeatable results for repetitive tasks, they have the opposite effect when we are dealing with challenging tasks that require high levels of cognitive thought, which, incidentally, is becoming more and more what our work is about.
There are a lot of situations in which you need to keep the pressure on, especially when it comes to increasing efficiency and reducing waste. But you'll also need to get very good at figuring out when that management approach is the exact opposite of what you need. In moments in which creative and innovative thought is required, you need to forget the drive to efficiency and instead focus on creating a "mental space." Google is famous for giving its engineers a percentage of time to work on whatever they want. But this isn't unique to technology companies. A number of progressive CIOs at organizations like Consumers Energy, the University of Pennsylvania and Quicken Loans are employing a similar tactic to unleash the creativity of their teams and drive innovation.
The importance of unstructured time cannot be overstated. According to some recent research, a typical knowledge worker today spends only five hours a week in cognitive thought. While there are many reasons for this (needless meetings, anyone?), one of the greatest culprits is a lack of unstructured time in which to simply think. We have become so hyper-concerned with optimizing productivity that we are actually reducing it.
I recently attended a workshop on neuro-leadership with a friend of mine was the Vice President of Global Operations at a very large entertainment software company, and he told me a story of how he had taken over a conference room and had installed a ping pong table so that teams could “blow off steam," strengthen relationships and foster cross-functional collaboration. When a new CFO came in, he saw this as an inefficient use of both physical resources and employee time and had it removed immediately. My friend, who was carefully measuring productivity across a number of dimensions, watched productivity fall across the board—all in the name of a CFO’s faulty sense of efficiency.
As an IT leader, you will have to find a way to create unstructured time for your team to think, interact and "blow off steam" if you want to create a culture of creativity. It will take faith and courage to watch people be seemingly unproductive and hope that this "free time" bears creative fruit. But if you still have doubts, I have a little test for you. Leave your office right now, turn off your phone, drive to a nearby lake or park and take a walk. Clear your head and let your mind wander and think about anything but work. The moment you successfully remove that intense focus on "getting things done," your brain will start silently working on some of the perplexing issues that have been keeping you up at night. You might be amazed at the creative thoughts that arise during your time away from the office.
Step 2: Don't Solve the Problem
We live in a results-oriented world. We are expected to solve problems. That's what we get paid to do. We have programmed ourselves to identify a problem, zero in on the source of the problem and eliminate it—and then move on to the next problem. The better and faster you are at problem solving, the faster your star will rise. It's a proven fast track to professional success. In most organizations, those individuals that have risen to the top are those that have proven that they can get things done. We live in a results-based business world, and solutions are the currency of success.