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Business Creativity & Innovation

Living with looseness

Neither creativity itself nor the issues that demand creativity are tidy or controlled. To handle this, you need a mental framework that is 'forgiving' of a necessary degree of confusion, ambiguity, uncertainty or contradiction, providing, of course, that a sufficient core of structure can be extracted from it to allow your activities to proceed. This article looks at the areas that managers seem to find most troublesome and suggests some skills and abilities that may require development.

There are five areas of ambiguity that managers find particularly troublesome:

  • Where the significance and reliability of information is problematical.
  • Where it is unclear at what level the problem needs to be tackled.
  • Where different value orientations lead to political and emotional clashes among key players, inside and outside the organization.
  • Where contradictions and paradoxes appear.
  • Where symbols and metaphors, rather than logical arguments, are used to advance a position.

If several of the above characteristics combine, the problems begin to disrupt a manager's normal routines, and stress levels climb. Situations like these test the limits of analysis, so strictly analytical skills tend to be less relevant. Skills and procedures such as those listed below often help to provide the 'looseness' needed to manage these difficult circumstances.

  • Problem-finding ability. A combination of judgement, intuition and logic that enables a manager to identify the right problem and to recognize opportunities.
  • Map-building ability. The skill of generating one or more ways of conceptualizing a problematic situation, including the ability to relate the demands of the situation to organizational and personal values and identity.
  • Janusian thinking. This refers to thinking that joins seemingly contradictory beliefs in a constructive way (the Roman god Janus faced in both directions at once).
  • Controlling and not controlling. Knowing when to let events follow their own course versus knowing when to intervene.
  • Humour that oils. This is humour that helps regulate stress and encourages creative juxtapositions, rather than biting, sarcastic, denigrating humour. Laughter is restorative – releasing tension and rejoining people.
  • Charisma. The ability to stir enthusiasm, commitment and confidence. It transforms everyday activities into purposeful pursuit of super-ordinate goals and heightens people's sense of their own power and their willingness to take risks.
  • The use of a core group embedded in a network of contacts and information. At the centre of any exercise in 'turbulence management' you usually find a core group – a few people meeting frequently face to face, working at least half-time in this role so that they can become really immersed in it.
  • The use of domain and direction planning rather than goal-directed planning. Knowing who you are and where you want to go is inherently more flexible and better adapted to the realities of acting under stress than thinking in terms of specific, objective, measurable goals.
  • Use ad hoc structures such as task forces and project teams. These temporary structures allow the organization to depart from old practices and to learn new behaviours – e.g. to examine the fundamentals of the business, or to experiment with the organization's traditional ways, or to educate key players in the new rules of the game.
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