A colleague recently sent me a link to an article published on Linkedin earlier this year that was given a rather provocative title. "Why Companies Shouldn't Hire Creative People" by Paul Currant, an educator and, believe it or not, a novelist with enough arts degrees to wallpaper a New York City apartment, is an indictment of the modern business culture's decision to place high value on and attempt to encourage creativity in the workplace.
Basketball-hoop trash cans and "cool" office spaces -- particular bugbears for Currant -- are symptomatic of a corporate culture that has grown amnesiac as to its purpose. His advice (supported by an argument that boils down to "It worked this one time") is to return to a highly pragmatic thought process, one that elbows aside crosscurrent thinking in favor of practical, results-oriented conversations.
Internet commenters have already spent their rage, flinging the kind of ad hominen attacks at the author that make their valid critiques less persuasive, and I'm not about to follow their example and engage in fruitless mud flinging. I'm also not about to counter his argument with the equally ridiculous notion that companies should exclusively hire creatives; practical, results-oriented thinking absolutely has a vital role to play in all businesses no matter what size or what their product or service.
What I am going to do is look at Currant's six tips to a supposedly efficient but creativity-free office environment, what the consequences of putting such steps in action are, and why the lion's share of pack-leading businesses are actually doing the opposite of what Currant is suggesting. Let's take each of Currant's points in turn.
1. "No More Brainstorming" - Brainstorming is apparently a huge productivity drain. Rather than a sharing of ideas -- some good, some bad, some great, some awful -- and the ensuing separation of wheat from chaff, Currant suggests an intent focus on the bottom line, played out in meetings with nothing but "metrics and benchmarking" on the agenda. Leigh Thompson, Professor at the Kellogg School, suggests that brainstorming's tendency to congeal around low-hanging fruit may indeed be problematic, but, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Thompson insists that the basic structure of brainstorming be retained. Her research found that "brainwriting [the process of writing out ideas prior to out-loud brainstorming meetings] generated 20 percent more ideas and 42 percent more original ideas" than brainstorming sessions. Rather than stifling creativity, forward-thinking employers are unleashing it.
2. "Copy Don't Innovate" - This one hardly deserves any comment. The world of business is moving juggernaut-like ever forward, and those who look sideways to match pace with their competitors have already fallen out of step both with them and the leaders of the pack. In Currant's model of a successful organization, the creatives have all either exited stage left or are taking their final bows; that may be an organization that is positioned reasonably well to cope with the business realities of the moment, but, without the innovation, imagination, and inspiration that creatives bring to the table, the organization will not be positioned to cope with the unique challenges that the uncertain future inevitably brings in its wake.
3. "Dismantle the Marketing Department" - The author's main beef with marketing seems to be its 'cool office.' Without any tangible reasons for the suggestion, he insists that marketing be installed "in the heart of the company." Presumably, this heart is sectioned into cubicles and communicates with the body exclusively in the language of finance. Unconventional workplaces aren't more productive in and of themselves, but, when they are an outgrowth of an employee-centric corporate culture, the results (think Google) can be utterly spectacular.
4. "Salespeople Stick to the Script" - Currant connects a spate of underhanded selling practices in the English energy industry (which resulted in sizeable fines for the companies implicated) with "'creative' selling." This is apparently evidence enough to indict all those who have thrown away their scripts in favor of a more personable approach to customer-seller relationships. Scripts are (or can be) helpful for salespeople who crave structure, and many salespeople swear by them, but tell your best salespeople that they're not allowed to deviate from the prescribed script and you'll be looking at an office practically bursting with empty, spinning chairs.
5. "No Original Sales or Marketing Strategies" - Currant poses the following mind bender: "Of course, some new sales and marketing ideas are a roaring success, but do you want to stake your job that yours will be one of the lucky few?" His solution is to, you guessed it, imitate and stick to the script. The problem is that, especially in marketing, if you're not evolving, you're decaying. Discouraging originality in your marketing department is the equivalent of flying a white flag in clear view of your competitors.
6. "Real Consequences for Failure" - I've yet to encounter an organization that rewards failure, or even one that turns a blind eye to dismal campaigns -- no matter how highly that organization has decided to value creative solutions. Swift consequences, according to Currant, "[sharpen] everyone's minds." He seems to be under the (misguided) impression that twenty-first-century sales and marketing departments are operating in consequence-free zones. This can apparently be fixed by hanging the sword of Damocles the lot of them. The amount of turnover such a policy would create would make almost any organization toxic for prospective employees and untenable for current ones. Today's top employers not only understand that high turnover rates, especially if they are lasting, are productivity killers, they also understand the risks (and rewards) inherent in creative and experimental practices.
If there's worse business advice out there, I haven't come across it. The links between creativity, innovation, and spectacular success have been well documented, and, though placing sensible limits on how large a role creativity plays in your organization is a sound strategy, the world's most successful businesses constantly re-evaluate and revise those limits -- usually upwards.
Today's business world demands and rewards unconventional ideas; we need more of them, not less. A creativity cull is, simply put, a recipe for disaster in the long-term (and perhaps the short-term as well). It's a good thing Currant isn't finding the business world very receptive to his ideas.