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Corporate America's No.1 Enemy? Itself

04/10/2014 10:53 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2014

In 1991, I was busy trying to get drunk in parking lots and not have my parents find out, Bush the Elder was President (Bush The Younger was possibly doing the same as me) and Bryan Adams topped the Billboard Hit 100. The first Gulf War, "Desert Storm," was launched (and won) and a relatively unknown business called Starbucks opened its first ever outlet in California.

And in the spring of that year, very quietly, a scientist named Christina E. Shalley published an applied psychology paper that, in retrospect, was perhaps more newsworthy than the rest of the year's events put together.

Her April 1991 Journal of Applied Psychology paper, "Effects of productivity goals, creativity goals, and personal discretion on individual creativity" should, arguably, have revolutionized the way our corporations work.

But it didn't.

To be fair, back then, few of us had really heard of the Internet, nor did many of us truly take China seriously. More fool us. In the intervening period, those twin drivers have forced upon corporate America a degree of change, commodization and disintermediation that even the most prescient might have failed to predict.

Having stumbled across Shalley's work a little while ago, I was reminded of it again recently. I had the privilege to hear Lord Hall, Director-General of Great Britain's BBC, make the keynote speech at an Oxford University celebration of the life of alumnus extraordinaire, the metaphysical poet John Donne.

Charged with the genuinely awesome responsibility of leading what is perhaps the world's most consistently creative organization, the Director-General made a characteristically brilliant, wide-ranging speech.

Tellingly, he returned again and again to one consistent theme: the deep, innate human compulsion to create -- from bold cave paintings to the understated nuance of Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad, and everything in between.

In the last few years, a (belated) consensus has thankfully emerged that Western business needs to become significantly more creative in order renew itself. Executing on this consensus should, in theory, be relatively easy -- a question of leveraging the inherent human trait that Lord Hall identified.

But, in practice, manifestly, this is not happening. Or certainly not at the pace it should be.

Why not?

Because, despite everything, we still live in a Fordist world, a hangover of the Industrial Revolution and pre-war American mechanization.

As a result, there are still too many managers, in too many corporations, who seek to suck personal discretion and judgment out of as much corporate activity as possible. And this insidious tendency towards the minimization of autonomy is greatly heightened during times of economic uncertainty. Spreadsheetizing, Powerpointizing -- the superimposition (in every sense) of a box mentality -- makes certain types feel more secure, believing that they are ironing out every crinkle of risk.

It shouldn't -- because they're not.

What they are actually doing is increasing corporate risk -- and on a much more significant, existential level.

Shalley's 1991 study found that creativity was highest where there was either a "do-your-best creativity goal and difficult productivity goal" or "a difficult creativity goal and difficult productivity goal." On the other hand, creativity was lowest where there was a:

a) difficult productivity goal and no creativity goal, or

b) do-your-best productivity goal and no creativity goal; or

c) no creativity goal and low personal discretion.

This is quite remarkable: The harder the challenge, the more creative the person and their response -- provided that the goals were sufficiently creative and/or personal discretion was high. This is the "square peg in a round hole" scene from the movie Apollo 13, writ large. And it has huge, obvious, implications for corporations.

A 2008 study, by Charles Limb and Allen Braun, suggests that in order to achieve optimal creativity in our workforces, we might need to go even further.

In Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation, Limb and Braun measured brain activity in jazz pianists when they were improvising, as opposed to playing pieces from memory or sheet music. True improvisation appeared to require some sort of active disengagement of the pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain most commonly associated with organization and judgment. When one considers the premium that is placed on these two things by most American employers, the scale of the challenge is undeniable.

At a time when the nation needs it most, it is, therefore, the corporations themselves, not the people within them, that stand as the single biggest barrier to greater creativity in the workplace.

Urgently, then, we need a generation of American corporate leaders who are ready to be more, well, "American" -- to maximize freedom, personal discretion and autonomy. The more we require our employees move towards the pointy end of Maslow's pyramid, Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness," the more we help ourselves.

It comes down to trust. America is special: it was founded on, and has endured because of, the principle that 'we, the people' can be trusted. By truly living this value in our corporations, we could unleash a new wave of reinvention and novation that will create a Second American Golden Age.

As John Donne, the English poet, might have put it:

"mee thinks [we] have the keyes of [our] prison in [our] owne hand"

But I think, perhaps, a mentor of mine of mine put it best:

'Manage 'em on kite strings, not dog leashes'.