Let It Flow

Lance Creativity, Ideas, Leadership Leave a Comment

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When the nature of the world is Industrial, and the fundamentals of production are Strength and Speed, the problem that must be solved is mechanical: how to become stronger and faster. Factories, assembly lines, and tools all enabled human beings to exceed the limits of their own physical strength to accomplish the explosion of productivity that made the Industrial Revolution.

When the nature of the world is Information, and the fundamentals of production are Ideas, the problem that must be solved is intellectual: how to generate new and better ideas. So, what are the environments and assets that organizations can employ to do just that?

Half-a-dozen years ago, author Steven Johnson looked at exactly this question in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, which takes readers on a fantastic ride through the history of world-changing ideas. Johnson identifies several characteristics of the environments that foster creative, inventive ideas, one of which he calls “liquid networks” — environments which exhibit the following:

  • high density — lots of members closely connected;
  • plasticity — capable of adopting new configurations;
  • randomizing — encourages collisions between disparate members;
  • diffusion — spillover effect of how information transfers among members in a non-regulated way.

In other words, idea generation thrives in the kind of environment typified in the open source software development world, not the hierarchical, top-down, “scientific management” environments of Industrial Age organizational management.

Without intending to, a recent Harvard Business Review article discussing the challenges of successfully developing an employee feedback culture unwittingly described the benefits of a “liquid network” that Johnson describes.

Leaders use a variety of tools to get people to speak up, like “climate” surveys and all-staff feedback sessions. Many of these efforts focus on improving communication up and down the hierarchy. But they usually fall short, regardless of good intentions, for two key reasons: a fear of consequences (embarrassment, isolation, low performance ratings, lost promotions, and even firing) and a sense of futility (the belief that saying something won’t make a difference, so why bother?).

Disincentives for creative thinking and speaking up are a feature of industrial/scientific management principles, not a bug. So said the father of this management philosophy, Frederick Winslow Taylor:

In our scheme, we do not ask the initiative of our men. We do not want any initiative. All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick.

As a leader, it is critical to understand what kind of world your organization’s endeavor puts you in — the World of Industry or the World of Information. If it’s the latter (and this category only gets bigger every day), the answer to more and better productivity — more and better ideas — is to pattern your organization’s shape, practices, and culture after the “liquid network” concept:

  • interconnectedness vs functional silos;
  • flexibly embrace heresies vs rigidly holding to orthodoxies;
  • unconventional interactions vs predictable, customary chain of command restrictions;
  • radical transparency vs carefully managed and measured information sharing.