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Creativity and Organizational Culture

William C. Miller, President of Global Creativity Corporation, is concerned with fostering creativity. He considers Theresa Amabile's assertions about the failure of stretch goals to be very important. Amabile describes how a culture that emphasizes performance evaluation creates a climate of fear and an unwillingness to take risks. Organizations cannot convince their best people to take personal risks if it entails a possible cost to their careers. The answer is clear: People are not willing to expose themselves to being chastised for being different. Successful organizations have recognized that they need to tolerate differences among employees.

Organizational culture has a direct impact on how creativity and innovation are received. This is especially important where the underlying feelings and beliefs of a group go counter to those of creative individuals. The concept of organizational culture emphasizes shared, unspoken understanding in the minds of the organization's members. One example of the power of shared values was the phenomenal success of the Ford Taurus, where a change in focus emphasized quality as the top priority and led to radical changes. A new approach was used for the design of the cars: the Planning, Engineering, Design, and Manufacturing divisions acted together as the team that took final responsibility for the cars. The result was an outstanding success.

Organizational culture also reflects the basic assumptions and preferences that guide individual behavior. Culture links both the tangible and intangible factors reflecting these shared values. In addition, shared values often determine the degree of commitment that individuals are willing to make to the goals of the organization. To obtain a commitment to innovation and creativity, leaders need to recognize that an individual's values and the organization's cultural norms must be compatible. Or, stated differently, successful implementation requires that people be willing to change when required.

A major challenge facing leaders is how to reconcile individual values with cultural norms. One approach that has been highly successful in gaining commitment on the part of an individual is to provide the person the freedom to explore his or her own ideas. Where this approach has been used, unusual results have been achieved. A case in point was the development of the first IBM personal computer. By allowing a team in Boca Raton, Florida complete freedom, unfettered by the usual corporate constraints, it was able to leapfrog the competition and bring out one of the first personal computers.

John Akers, who was President of IBM, on the other hand, was a captive of IBM's traditionally rigid environment and wound up leaving the company because of his failure to turn it around. His successor, Lou Gerstner, came with an open mind and the mission of reinventing IBM. He devised an agile corporation that could leapfrog past its competition, and encouraged radical rather than incremental change. However, even Gerstner ran into problems when he tried to coerce Jim Manzi, a true entrepreneur, into taking a backseat. Manzi was known for being “strong-willed,” sometimes abrasive, and generally a loner. He could not work for anyone; he wanted to be his own boss, and he ultimately left IBM.

Intrinsic motivation and creative performance are very often influenced by the way in which jobs are structured. Complex and demanding jobs generally foster greater motivation than simple and routine jobs. Individuals with high intrinsic involvement in their work are likely to be more focused, persistent, and open to alternatives that lead to greater creative potential. In addition to the structure of individual jobs, organizational systems are needed to support and encourage creative effort. Organizational environments that are most conducive to creative activity on the part of their employees have open communication between levels of the organization, encourage employee input into decisions, and allow considerable flexibility. Where there is a lack of organizational support coupled with rigid controls, employees often become discouraged and are unwilling to take the unusual risks that creativity demands.

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