Creativity and too many rules – choose one, because you can’t have both

I  was recently asked a question about how we can improve creativity within the workplace. My answer: we need to embrace failure and mistakes, and remove many of the unnecessary corporate rules that we often have to operate within. Yes, boundaries are important, and absolutely required. But having boundaries doesn’t mean creating a strict corporate box that we must stay within. Especially if we’re trying to encourage creativity.

And that’s the ironic thing about all of this. There are so many organizations that talk creativity and innovation, challenging their teams to become leaders within their industries, and yet at the same time they have all these unnecessary rules that must be followed.

It’s like pouring water over a small flame; If you want to encourage innovation and creativity, then you have to get rid of the unnecessary rules. Because you cannot have both.

I witnessed a great example of this recently. Not at work, but at home. My son was playing with his Lego. This was not one of your expensive sets of Lego, but a very small and inexpensive one. But for over an hour he just played and played, creating this imaginary world around him, where the characters in the game either didn’t exist in reality or if they did, they did things they weren’t designed to do. His imagination and creativity were what you would expect from a 6-year-old; they’re where no boundaries and he had no rules.

So I sat there and watched and then wondered what would happen if I introduced some rules. If I said that he had to keep the Lego on the table and couldn’t use the floor and all the kitchen utensils he’d brought along? What if I said that the piece without wings couldn’t fly? What if I’d said that he couldn’t interchange the bodies and the legs? What if I’d given him a box to play in and rules to abide by? Would he have been as creative? As imaginary? No.

But this is the exact problem we have in the workplace. We do need creativity and innovation, but for some reason, we’ve come to think we can have it whilst mandating a whole host of unnecessary rules. We know that children are creative, but we’ve forgotten it’s often because there are few things limiting their imagination. It’s clear we’ve forgotten because a lot of organizations seek creativity but limit imagination through rules.

So before you drive your new ‘innovative vision’ and push the need for creativity and initiative within your organization, even adding these words to employee work objectives, ask yourself (and even better – ask them): have we created a box with rules that limit the best ideas? Or are we certain we’re going to let the flames grow without them getting put out?

Because you cannot have both – you can’t be ‘comfortable’ whilst stretching the limits. It doesn’t work. You have to choose.

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