Creative office worker

Does the creativity of your company hinge on "creatives"? If you're prone to answer yes, or at least to entertain the idea that hiring creatives is the way forward in making the organization more creative, you're caught in one of the more nefarious fallacies in modern organization – one which may well be both hindering and hobbling your company.

Now, there's nothing wrong with "creatives", by which we tend to mean specialists in a field dependent on creativity – design, marketing, illustration, writing, and so on. These are fields that are integral to the functioning of the modern corporation, not to mention often thriving industries unto themselves, so the professionals working in them should be recognized and respected. That said, it might just be that notions such as "creative work", "creative fields", and "creative industries" have done us a tremendous disservice. By focusing out creative attention (as it were) on a limited number of fields and people, our conceptualizations of creativity can in fact blind us to a great many valuable things, people, and ideas.

Many of the companies I've worked with have started from the assumption that creativity is something that exists mainly (or solely) in a small sub-set of their best employees. It's not that they thereby say that the rest of their workforce is worthless, for they often do appreciate all of their employees, it's just that they're conditioned to think about creativity as something just some people do. But this is not how creativity works, and a key realization that I've gained over the years is that in every organization, there is an underutilized set of ideas and creative energies that isn’t fully appreciated simply because the aforementioned fallacy.

More to the point, companies are often quite remarkably bad at capturing the surplus of ideas that their organizations generate, and as a result may often end up in situations where they've squandered great opportunities or failed to react to changing circumstances – even though they had the means to do so all along. What is needed, then, is for companies to start paying attention to their cognitive surplus, the untapped creative energies that lie beyond the sphere dominated by "the creatives".


What's Your Cognitive Surplus?

The term comes to us from the title of media scholar Clay Shirky's 2010 book Cognitive Surplus – How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators. Whilst the book can be criticized for a somewhat Pollyannaish take on the internet and its possibilities, the notion is an evocative one. In effect, Shirky argued that the internet has enabled us to capture and channel mental energies that were earlier wasted in front of TVs or in mindless wandering across shopping malls, and through this made possible things such as Wikipedia and global fan communities – and the value that these create. For him, the move from old media, which was often consumed in a passive way, to new media and its processes of co-creation, was one where society's cognitive surplus was put to better use.

Regardless of whether we accept Shirky's positive interpretation or not – one should remember that new media has also created things such as fake news and the murkier sides of Reddit – the concept is helpful as a tool of thinking. When we look to any group of people, we tend to appraise its creative potential on the basis of its most creative individuals, in effect asking how much value the top performers can create. What Shirky did was that he turned this question around, and instead started inquiring into the following:

How much value are we losing out on by not utilizing the cognitive power of the great majority?

This is an interesting question for any community or society, and looking at the big picture we know that society wasn't well served by excluding e.g. all women, or only considering ideas if they came from people with the "right" class or ethnicity. Similarly, a society or community where most of the members remain quiet and passive, be this due to lethargy or fear, will have a lot of unused cognitive surplus.

For me, this was also a stimulating way to think about organizations, for while changing an entire society towards a more open and inclusive mode of thinking and working can be quite a daunting task (Although an important one we shouldn't ignore!), doing the same in the far more limited case of a modern organization seemed doable, with a massive upside to boot!

Thus I have for a few years worked on the notion of cognitive surplus in organizations, or, if you prefer a less affected way to talk about it, how to create inclusive creative cultures. This is of course a big and complex issue, but as so many such, the first step towards improvement is seeing your limitations and realizing your opportunities.


A Hierarchy of Ideas?

Low Platt, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, famously said "If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive.". This quote, and the pithy way in which it captures the complexities of knowledge in a company, has gone on to become something of an evergreen in business thinking, endlessly reiterated in a number of variations. Its popularity stems from the fact that we, on an instinctive level, know that we squander both knowledge and ideas in organizations, but it says precious little about why this is so.

A key reason why companies suffer from this kind of knowledge amnesia and creativity myopia is due to an integral element of the organization – hierarchy. Whether we like to admit it or not, every organization has some version of this, and the usual case is that the organization doesn't just have a hierarchy, it has a very rigid one. Hierarchies are created by position, by power, by competencies, and through many other means. In some ways this is productive, as it makes command-lines clear and decision-making easier, but it also serves as a way to limit whose knowledge and ideas are seen.

What this often means is that an organization, either implicitly or explicitly, listens to and values ideas more if they come from the "right" sources rather than from the "wrong" ones. Whilst this doesn't necessarily run exactly along hierarchical lines, this does tend to guide who are listened to and who aren't. In some organizations, ideas and innovations are seen as something that is created first and foremost by engineers, whilst it in other organizations might be that only ideas that are generated in the top management team are seen as legitimate and valuable. Even in organizations where this tendency isn't as noticeable, there is almost always a subtle and unspoken hierarchy which affects how ideas are received and treated.

When working with companies looking to improve their creative culture, this is often where I find the biggest problems. The company might think that it is very open, democratic, and transparent, yet it is still a very small group of people – sometimes referred to as "talents" or "the creatives" – whose ideas are truly taken seriously. Those who feel they do not belong to this group will, consciously or not, have ideas, but be very hesitant to air them. This, in turn, will convince top management that their assumptions about who to listen to for idea is right! It's a process that reinforces itself, and after a while, the company may both have tremendous capacity for ideation, yet almost none in practice!

So your company too might have a large cognitive surplus, and the under-utilization of this can severely damage your capacity to innovate. What is extra scary is that the usual ways to deal with this – the innovation initiatives, the idea competitions, the quirky "creative room" you commissioned – can have little to no effect on this, as such interventions fail to address the key problem.


Scanning for Surplus Creativity

What, then, should a company do instead? How does an organization go from ignoring to assessing its cognitive surplus? I usually recommend starting with the following three things:

Make a brutally honest list of whom the organization normally turns to for ideas. The point of this exercise is that it highlights what people in the organization already tends to know – that there is a shortlist. It also serves as a stark reminder just how many people fall outside of the list, and should be used to kickstart an honest conversation about exclusion and marginalization in the company, and how one could go about to make those who today remain silent active in the conversation.

Testing through anonymity. This is something that companies sometimes think they're doing already, but tend to do really badly. This, as there is a vast difference between allowing and insisting on anonymity when bringing new ideas. The former means that only those who feel powerless will seek the shield of anonymity, whereas the latter means that everyone can be secure that it is the ideas, not a position in the hierarchy, that decides what gets attention and what doesn't.

Make respect a KPI. Even though it is the topic of an article unto itself, it needs to be stated here as well – the number one reason people aren't engaged in ideation and innovation is that they do not feel respected. Managers on all levels must commit to establishing a culture of respect, one where people's ideas are listened to and engaged with regardless of where they sit in the internal hierarchy. When people start feeling that the respect is there, the cognitive surplus will start rousing itself.

The key thing to remember is the following: Just like you should scan the market for opportunities, you should scan your own organization for underutilized resources. Quite often, all the ideas and all the innovations that a company needs already resides within it, hidden in plain sight.


Alf Rehn is a highly engaging thought leader on innovation and new wave business management.

Apr 21, 2017 By webmaster