Creativity and Control

Two of my favorite blogs are Seth Godin and Signal vs. Noise. They often share ideas that have helped me become a better manager.

Recently each of them covered topics which caught my attention.

Godin says the secret to creativity is curiosity. In regards to hiring he says:

Same thing is true for most of the people we hire. We’d like them to follow instructions, not ask questions, not question the status quo.

Yet, without "why?" there can be no, "here’s how to make it better."

It’s good to have worker bees. Every company needs them. People who show up at 8 and leave at 5 everyday. They do the job they are asked. Yet they are consistent and stable employees who complete tasks.

I once had a coworker who fit this description. She left at 5 pm no matter what was going on in the office. If she had to walk out in the middle of a meeting then so be it. She logged off email at 5pm and didn’t look at her inbox till 8 am the next morning. She also turned off her cell phone. She was vigilant in protecting her time outside of work.

She checked off all the boxes one would look for when hiring a new employee. Yet she possessed little passion for the industry or our products. She didn’t “ask why” because that answer was of no interest to her.  The job was a paycheck. Nothing more.

The flip side is the employee who challenges, asks why, and looks for ways to improve the company. In my experience, this is the more difficult employee to manage. But when done properly, the benefits outweigh the occasional hassle. This employee challenges the status quo. He’s full of ideas and isn’t bashful about sharing them. He wakes up 3 am with an idea and shoots off an email because he can’t wait until the next morning.

Some businesses need both types. But I know which one I’d rather manage. Especially if my business relies on innovation and creativity to grow.

The other post that caught my attention came from Matt at the 37 Signals blog. He writes about how some companies use control. He suggests that tighter controls may have unintended consequences:

But “control” is a tricky thing. The tighter the reins, the more you create an environment of distrust. An us vs. them mentality takes hold. And that’s when people start trying to game the system.

For the most part, the companies I’ve worked for were able to find the right balance. I worked for two small companies that provided no control which doesn’t work well either.

Matt goes on to quote Shunryu Suzuki:

The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in its wider sense. To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.

I’m constantly trying to balance control in regards to those I manage. One must have control over some aspects of work. Time reports and expenses come to mind. But work schedule and freedom to figure out the best way to solve problems are two items where relinquishing some control can bring substantial benefits.

Link to Seth Godin

Link to Signal vs. Noise