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Volume 14, Issue 44;   October 29, 2014: Rationalizing Creativity at Work: I

Rationalizing Creativity at Work: I

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Much of the work of modern organizations requires creative thinking. But financial and schedule pressures can cause us to adopt processes that unexpectedly and paradoxically suppress creativity, thereby increasing costs and stretching schedules. What are the properties of effective approaches?
A collaboration session in a modern workplace

A collaboration session in a modern workplace. The very structure of the session encourages creative collaboration. Everyone can see the whiteboard, where people have written notes and ideas. People are free to move their chairs to any location they need, enabling dynamic reconfiguration for content-dependent discussion. And there is no "head" of the room — hierarchy, if it exists, is unclear, and possibly fluid. Photo (cc) by Subhashish Panigrahi courtesy Wikimedia.

In everyday conversation, as in psychology, to rationalize is to deal with emotional conflict about an act or behavior by creating sometimes-elaborate explanations that make it seem plausible, justified, or even admirable, thus resolving the conflict. In this way we can relieve feelings such as guilt, regret, or embarrassment. Or we might use rationalization to assert innocence or to elude punishment. But in the context of economics, the term has other meanings. In economics, to rationalize is to alter a process or procedure, based on careful design, to achieve specific goals, usually related to cost savings, efficiency enhancement, or compliance with accepted rules. That is the sense of the term we'll use here, as we explore what happens when we rationalize creativity at work.

Brainstorming is one effective form of rationalizing creativity. In brainstorming, we create a "container" that encourages creativity and accelerates problem solving.

Rationalizing creativity at work doesn't always get us what we want. Sometimes we miss by a lot. Sometimes rationalization snuffs out creativity altogether. What distinguishes effective and ineffective approaches to rationalizing creativity? Let's begin with properties of effective approaches.

They encourage novel collaborations
In most modern workplaces, collaboration is essential to creativity. Interaction formats and cultural norms are especially helpful if they stimulate collaborations between people who might not otherwise collaborate.
Collaborations Encouraging creativity doesn't always
get us what we want. Sometimes
we miss by a lot. Sometimes
we snuff out creativity altogether.
between people who have dramatically different degrees of organizational power can be very productive. But they are difficult to manage and difficult to encourage. If you can find a framework within which to create such collaborations, truly valuable insights can result.
They relax social constraints
Relaxing social constraints frees people to think in novel ways and to contribute those novel thoughts. Removing restrictions on the acceptability of ideas, or restrictions on the acceptability of proposing certain ideas, is usually helpful.
Frameworks that effectively stimulate creativity must deal with social constraints relating to organizational power. The powerful are sometimes reluctant to be open to collaboration with the less powerful, and the less powerful are sometimes intimidated by the powerful. Power is like a wall between the more powerful and the less powerful.
They stimulate fresh perspectives
Because looking at a problem from a fresh perspective stimulates new insights, environments or frameworks that encourage fresh perspectives accelerate problem solving and innovation.
This is one reason why "retreat" formats are so productive so often. They take people out of their customary environments, away from the routine of the everyday. But take care not to surround people with distractions. Resort environments are nice, but the risk of a resort is that people will enjoy the resort, and pay little attention to the issues motivating the retreat.

Next time, we'll examine some properties of approaches that tend to suppress creativity. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Rationalizing Creativity at Work: II  Next Issue

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
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In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

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