Innovation on the Fly

Using creativity to determine what tasks do NOT need to be done.

Way too many people want to be writers. If theirs were as simple a dream as putting words on a page, I wouldn’t object. But “writer” has come to mean, in certain circles, a dreamy artist sipping a latte at a reclaimed wooden table surrounded by hanging plants. Pause. Sip. Look out the window.

What I think people actually want, much more than a writing career, is mental space, unscheduled time and to reconnect with their creativity – factors that lead to flow. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi popularized this focused state in a 1975 book, but concentration is not new. It is simply more sought after as the rate of change in society increases – and this is no figure of speech – exponentially.

Innovation flourishes under the same conditions as the written word. A brain can only crank out so much under pressure. That’s what aspiring writers tell me; the conditions must be just right. Yet, what makes a good worker is consistency, the ability to churn out the same high-quality product whether one feels creatively charged or not. And so the conditions that produce high-quality writers, for example, can be hipster-paradise cafes. More often, they are late nights and scant budgets.

There is something skill-building about facing one’s need to survive.

Survival mode can’t go on forever, and if you use this column to abuse low-paid creatives, you’ve read it wrong. Yet, when I see a job ad requesting “out of the box thinkers,” I know that a survivalist will grab that gig. Constant comfort rarely yields an innovative personality.

Of course, the irony of such job postings is that their authors are targeting innovators with such a trite phrase. Inventive people are difficult enough to recruit to stagnant cultures. (If you’re such a person, one caveat: The less creative the company, the more vision that’s needed. Scrutinize the employer’s openness to change.)

The stressful nudge of scarcity drives business innovation, but only if we manage workloads. The common approach to demand high productivity with few resources is a recipe for attrition. Instead, use your creative people to understand what tasks do not need to be done. Stripping out the unnecessary injects freshness into the way we work. Chances are, your creatives already know where time and talent are wasted. The only question is, do you know when and how to listen?

Signs of the Times June 2019

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