Britain's assembly-line workplace culture stifles creativity in business, says a new Industrial Society report, In Virtual Value: conversations, ideas and the creative economy. The report's author Alex McKie argues that invention, innovation and creativity - crucial to Britain's economic success - are being stifled by the culture that exists in most of our workplaces.
McKie says the working culture of most UK organisations, whether service or public sector, or manufacturing, has yet to move beyond the traditional controlled, head down, assembly-line model, characterised by measurable targets and a rigid chain of command. "Often companies want creativity but only if it can be done within the normal rules of the business," she says.
But employers need to lighten up. "Creativity is at the heart of successful business. It is the source of innovation and future competitive advantage," she says. "But for many, managing is all about control, especially in IT which still has quite a macho culture. Apart from in some of the old industry sectors, managers just cannot get away with it these days."
McKie says the economic slowdown makes the environment more hostile to creativity as managers become reluctant to allow people to deviate from established working practices. She says that managing on adrenalin has long been part of the British work culture.
"In today's work environment this is unlikely to get the best results and is unhealthy from a work/life balance point of view. The really skillful managers are those who get things done quietly. They have to be internally-driven because they are less likely to get praise and therefore are less likely to be noticed. They go about their work quietly without causing disruption. People may think that they are not doing much because they are not making a fuss."
While words like innovation and creativity became buzzwords last year most companies only paid lip service to these ideals. "Employers like the idea of innovation and of sending their people on creativity courses run by the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company, but back at work people are not given the time and resources to think things through," McKie says.
"Managers ask staff for 'something innovative' without really giving them enough guidelines. If you want to engender innovation in your workplace you must think about what you want and what you are asking your team to do. How will you recognise innovation when you see it?
"Don't just say 'I want something different' - set out some criteria. This must be specific enough to give people some direction but also brief," she says.
If you start by giving your team a set of confused criteria their ideas are more likely to be rejected if they have misunderstood what was being asked of them. This will make them less willing to share their ideas.
Time for a little chat
According to McKie, encouraging better conversations at work could be the first step to re-ordering our workplaces to be more creative.
"All new ideas begin with conversations and if employers want to make money, they have to invest time in allowing people to talk to each other. The employer intent on stamping out idle chatter is likely to kill good ideas in the process."
Creative conversation at work means:
- Encouraging flexibility. The traditional workplace sees debate as a sign of weakness and discussion as time-wasting
- Learning how to listen. Lots of people get lessons in effective speaking, but what about active listening?
- Losing control. Traditional business structures are built around hierarchies and control - conversation requires people to talk and listen as equals
- Rewarding effort. Criticism kills ideas fast, and even jokes about "time-wasting" are counterproductive
This was first published in January 2002