In a fearful world, leaders need to embolden their people to swim against the tide.
By Jane Caro
A few years ago, I used to teach a subject of intense academic rigour (not) at the University of Western Sydney. ‘Advertising Creative’ was an elective in the Communications degrees offered by the School of Communication Arts. I taught the course twice per year for seven years. I usually had about 100 students per semester. UWS (or WSU as it is called now) is a terrific institution. Quite apart from anything else 75 per cent of its students are the first members of their family ever to go to university. It also enrolls students from a wide range of ethnic, social and religious backgrounds. All the research shows that a rich spread of experiences and beliefs in an organisation is ground zero for creativity.
What I found while teaching this wide range of students, was that the usual suspects were not the people who did as well as they expected in my course. In using the term ‘usual suspects’ I mean the archetypal ‘good’ students. Those who study hard and are very good at following the rules, and memorising and regurgitating what they have been told. To their consternation, for once, they were not the stars of the show. I remember one of them asking me how wide the margin should be on the work they handed in and the way their mouth dropped open at my answer.
“Margin? I don’t care if it has a margin at all. I don’t care if you hand in your creative idea scribbled on the back of an envelope so long as it makes me laugh, cry, shocks me, disturbs me or makes me think. Neatest, correct entry will get you nowhere. Messy but original will win. Show me something I have never seen before.”
The students who did surprisingly well in my course were often the ones who were just scraping through the rest of their subjects. They were the irreverent, lazy kids who winged their assignments at the very last minute because they were too busy having a good time. They were also less anxious than the high-achievers, less driven by the need for the approval of others. Their expectations, if they had any, were realistic. Yet, they were better at original ideas. They were more creative because they had kept their subversive spirit alive. They weren’t obedient or compliant and they didn’t follow the rules. And that is where creativity, originality and new ideas live. They germinate in that little internal voice that says ‘Why do I have to do it your way?’ ‘Why should I do what you tell me just because they call you the teacher (boss/supervisor, whatever) and me the student (employee/subordinate etc)?’
I remember one young man coming up to me on campus after the final results had been announced. “Thank you for the great mark,” he said, in a tone of bewilderment. He was clearly not used to scoring highly. “You deserved it,” I replied. “You think differently.”
The trouble with the world as it is now – whether it is in our education system, the workplace, politics, industry or even the media – is we are obsessed with compliance. We are preoccupied with ticking boxes, following the rules (complying with them, in fact) and being accountable. And accountability, as I have written before, is the proverbial dead-hand when it comes to creativity and original thinking. Accountability is a blame-oriented mechanism. If something goes wrong, someone will be held to account for the mistake. Creativity, originality and innovation thrive on mistakes. Whenever you try something new, by definition you are likely to get it wrong. That’s why the era of accountability has brought the western world to the place we find ourselves now. Some are looking backwards (I’m looking at you ‘Make America Great Again’) in fear and loathing, while the rest of us are desperately spinning our wheels and getting nowhere. Creativity and innovation, in my experience, can only really take flight in an almost fear-free environment. People must feel safe enough to fail before they can succeed. Managers who know this are both very wise and very rare.
We are currently living in a very fearful world. We’re terrified of being blamed and criticised. We’re scared of climate change, terrorism and ‘the other’. The future feels bleak and dystopian. I think we have to throw that self-limiting existential terror away. And we can only do that with some real innovation. So, it’s time to get subversive. Time to break the rules. Time to tear up the guidelines, excise the margins and scribble our best ideas on the back of envelopes.
Jane Caro runs her own communications consultancy. She worked in the advertising industry for 30 years and is now an author, journalist, lecturer and media commentator.