Finding a sweet spot for creativity and innovation

January 07, 2014

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By David Lancefield

At this time last year, I wrote a blog on how behavioural economics can help us stick to our New Year’s Resolutions. I took my own medicine, saying publicly to family and friends that I would participate in a few 10km runs, done in semi-decent times, and I paid my entrance fees well in advance. Both helped me turn up to the start line and finish, even if the times could have been better.

Over the last twelve months, I’ve been struck how often my clients and colleagues talk about the need for the right environment to think clearly and creatively. They find their days are jam packed with meetings and their inbox full of e-mails, leaving little time to think, let alone breathe (while I’m on that topic, I’d encourage you to check out this great blog on the topic of breathing). They also say that they have their best, most stimulating thoughts when they least expect it and not always using the most direct route to the answer – during a walk in the country, listening to music, going for a run or having a shower. It’s rarely when at their desk, working long days. Or when they have too much time on their hands; the buzz of a team environment and impending deadlines can be a positive spur too.

If that’s such a common finding, why do we find it so hard to create the sweet spot? Why do the great moments get left to chance?

There are a few insights from the world of behavioural and microeconomics that can help us with the answer, and offer some solutions. If we thought about how we could best maximise the value of our life to both ourselves and to those around us, we might expect us all to do this perfectly, logically and consistently. But we’re not always rational and far from perfect. Fear (and insecurity) about how others might perceive us can get in the way as we follow the herd of colleagues around us. We sometimes lack the foresight, flexibility or self-control to realise that there is another way to work - and we prioritise the personal gains from a short-term focus even when we know deep down that there is a more sustainable path. In doing this we can create problems for ourselves (like lower performance later on in the year, or stress and health problems), and others (often on our family, friends and colleagues given we’re too switched on to things apart from them – so-called negative externalities). 

So, how often do you think about finding the sweet spot of performance about what to do when you’re feeling that you’re seeing diminishing returns from your investment in work? And what can you do to re-organise your live to hit the inflection point at which you are working optimally and doing other things in your life that you enjoy? 

This is where commitments could play a bigger role. Imagine if you and your colleagues pluck up the courage to have a conversation about how you like to work. In economist speak, you could reveal your preferences and discuss how you can make your work culture and environment more conducive to higher performance. This may mean that you agree to have some space from time to time to think, and play, so you might not be as visible or responsive as before. Or you may agree that there are certain times when impending deadlines just have to take priority. It helps if your leadership explicitly and consistently encourages flexibility in how we work daily, as well as flexible working across the week. And it’s important that this is done as a co-operative group to to avoid the pitfalls of influential people reneging, which then makes it more difficult for others to work with more flexibility (akin to the Prisoner’s Dilemma).

All of this is perfectly possible, and the principle of visible commitment has been used before. The Government established what economists call a ‘credible commitment’ to stable monetary policy by establishing an independent Bank of England with the intention of eliminating the risk of interference. Google has the much quoted “20% time” for people to pursue ideas outside their day job, whilst the number is 15% at 3M, established back in 1948.

This shouldn’t be confused with a free-for-all. There has to be some structure, guiding principles and common values in the workplace. But the shift is to a focus on finding the sweet spot of performance, focusing more on outcomes (like a happy and loyal customer), rather than inputs (the number of hours worked) or process (adherence to implicit rules or processes).

We’d be more creative, productive and happier and our organisations no doubt more successful as a result. This surely sounds like something worth trying to achieve in 2014, doesn’t it? So, go on, what would you do to find your sweet spot of creativity and innovation?

David Lancefield:
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