Creative Conformity

I’m one week in to my new role and my transformation from HR practitioner to HR Lecturer. Within my first few days the stand out difference between practice and academia was revealed to me. This is the freedom to have, and explore, your own opinions. 

Yes, there’s plenty of opinionated people in organisations, but (in my opinion) it’s surprisingly rare that this is backed up by fact. Strong, expressed opinions drive organisational culture, a biproduct of which can be group think, which in turn suppresses opinion. 

If it’s not underpinned by explanation, a stated opinion only gains buy-in from those who absolutely agree with it. Without providing a framework of reasoning, those who have no firm opinion on the matter are given a completely free reign to determine their own view. Those who already have an entrenched  opposing position are likely to remain so, creating an alternative undercurrent with which they can attract the potential free radicals. 

This formation tends to annoy the opinionated who, characterised by rigidity, fail to realise that “control” can only be achieved in this situation by actually letting it go. There is no reflection, self-realisation or causal analysis, only blame. 

This type of culture demands creativity, yet completely misunderstands, or does not care about, the optimum conditions for nurturing. Their recruitment processes seek candidates that stand out as individuals yet once successful they are forced into a model of success based on fitting a pre-set standard mould. Creativity and conformity are incompatible. Conformity kills creativity.

This isn’t new. It’s been known a long time. The Outside Edge by Robert Kelley is the self-styled guidebook to help people who are “different” make it in a World where progression often means conforming. Kelley refers to a model of the creative process defined by Graham Wallis in the now out of print 1926 book The Art of Thought. Given the age of the model and the radically different employment theories of the time, it’s five stages;  Preparation, Incubation, Intimation, Illumination and Verification sound surprisingly modern. Scientific evidence is now emerging via neuroscientific brain scanning that supports the efficacy of the model. Why then have organisations been so slow to adopt these proven concepts? 

Perhaps it’s because creativity breeds creativity. Without taking a risk on trust and growth, organisations remain stuck in a closed system, averse to change. If nothing else, a ninety year old model teaches us this; while modes of employment evolve and disappear, creativity endures. 


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