Balance, productivity and creativity

Photo by *clairity*

I have been thinking about the issue of balance a lot lately. It shows up in many of my readings and it constantly popping into my head in all kinds of contexts. One of the balances I am particularly interested in is the one between productivity and creativity. The more research is accumulated on these issues, the more we learn that these two important concepts require very different environments in order to thrive. For example, productivity is many times focused on eliminating errors and minimizing noise and mistakes. Creative environments, on the other hand, thrive on such mistakes. As Steven Johnson wonderfully points out in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error.

Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.

The same is true regarding values and norms in working groups. On one hand, harmony is essential in creating enjoyable working environments and can lead to better cooperation. On the other hand, again, from Johnson:

In groups united by shared values and long-term familiarity, conformity and convention tended to dampen any potential creative sparks.

Most organizations need both high productivity and high creativity in order to succeed. The question is how you balance the needs by creating environments that support both.

The thing is, even in each and every one of these worlds it is also a question of balance. The balance of diminishing returns. As Seth Godin writes:

Over time, processes that seek to decrease entropy and create order are valued, but improving them gets more difficult as well. If you’re seeking to make the organized more organized, it’s a tough row to hoe.

Far easier and more productive to create productive chaos, to interrupt, re-create, produce, invent and redefine.

True. At the same time, we need to remember that to much Chaos is also counterproductive. Johnson Reminds us that:

The computer scientist Christopher Langton observed several decades ago that innovative systems have a tendency to gravitate toward the “edge of chaos”: the fertile zone between too much order and too much anarchy.

The question of balance in general and the balance between creativity and productivity is one that fascinates me and I hope to keep exploring it further in the future. In the mean time you should ask yourself – how are you balancing these two concepts? Are you really balancing in a way that contributes value or are you creating a compromise that hurts both?

Would be happy to hear your thoughts.



What are you doing about alpha-male type behavior?

Photo by dboy

A few days ago the Research Digest Blog published a post called “How male oil rig staff learned to lose their machismo” describing how negative behaviors like demonstrating physical prowess, taking risks, concealing technical incompetence and coming across as fearless and unflappable were deterred in an oil rig by adopting collectivist goals (especially putting safety first), defining competence according to task requirements rather than masculine ideals and having a learning orientation towards work.

It surprises me every time to see that individuals in companies and societies adopt behaviors that are detrimental to the general good of the organization because of fear of consequences and humiliation. Bob Sutton in his latest post discusses this in the context of learning from mistakes, quoting from an article by Larry Prusak about the importance of being wrong and learning from it. Sutton emphasizes how he, as someone that writes about this subject on a regular basis, was amazed to reconsider his reaction to Alan Greenspan’s admission that he was wrong after the financial crisis after rethinking about it as part of the process of learning from failure. Instead of celebrating the fact that someone high up in our government admitted their mistake and tried to learn from them, most of the press devoted to this admission concentrated on the outcome of the mistakes that already happned. A missed opportunity to learn and develop for the future.

The oil rig study reminded me of a different study/story that I heard about on radiolab (and is also described by Sutton in his book and here). To make a long story short: scientists following a group of baboons discovered that the group, which was characterized by bulling and violence, completely changed its behavior after a disaster killed almost all of the alpha males in the group. The new males that arrived in the group did not start acting like bullies because they had no role models for this behavior. The culture that developed in the group was much safer, collectivistic and emphatic.

Besides the fact that these kinds of findings always reminds me that we need more women in key roles, it also says something about the approach managers should adopt to individualistic alpha male type behavior. If it is hiding information or bullying others it should be banned entirely. This means that managers should not only actively discourage such behaviors by calling it on the spot and by firing people who fail to stop demonstrating such behaviors but should supplement it with a supportive atmosphere for behaviors that are in the greater interests of the group.