October 11, 2018

How organisational OCD is stamping out innovation and agility

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a debilitating anxiety disorder that can have devastating consequences for the individual that suffers from it.

I think there is a similar disorder that organisations suffer from ... I call it Obsessive Certainty Disorder.  It too is linked with anxiety and the need for control.   And it too has devastating consequences, especially when it comes to organisational responsiveness and innovation.

We have outsourced our relationship with uncertainty to certainty merchants.  Diego Espinosa

Continuing my reflections from the Whistler Cynefin retreat, an emergent theme involved the conditions that enable creativity and innovation in organisations.   While different speakers voiced it differently, the essence of what emerged is that the key things organisations need in order to enable creativity are the very things they typically work really hard to get rid of.

For example; organisations value certainty and stability so they remove tension, paradox, risk.  They want answers, not questions;   compliance and conformity, not curiosity.  They optimise for efficiency and thereby remove slack, boredom, and play.

Leaders say they want transformation, engagement, innovation, creativity, and agility … but their actions and the environments they create say otherwise: that they value the status quo, sameness, safety, certainty, busyness, and consensus.  Ambiguity isn't tolerated, things must be black or white, no grey.

The irony is that creativity is often born in discomfort i.e. in the midst of tension, boredom, or ambiguity.  Take boredom: Children make up new games when they are bored, employing their imagination to turn ordinary things around them into something new and extraordinary. In our constantly busy and distracted world, not even children get to be bored anymore.  Also, boredom is an uncomfortable feeling and discomfort cannot be tolerated so we think we’re doing them a favor when we stick a tablet in their hands to keep them occupied.  We’ve all become seduced by the need to be constantly occupied either with work or entertainment.  As Jesko von den Steinen said in Whistler: we need to be “in tune with boredom”; we must see it as a signpost that something new needs to emerge.  We need to sit in it, not run away from it.

Or take ambiguity: The September edition of the Harvard Business Review celebrates curiosity on the cover.  In a piece on the business case for curiosity, Francesca Gino lists multiple business benefits of curiosity including increased innovation, better decision-making, increased collaboration, but then writes: “In a recent survey I conducted of 520 chief learning officers and chief talent development officers, I found that they often shy away from encouraging curiosity because they believe the company would be harder to manage if people were allowed to explore their own interests. They also believe that disagreements would arise and that making and executing decisions would slow down, raising the cost of doing business”

Ambiguity stirs curiosity, Jesko explained how in the theatre they play with ambiguity, with conscious abstraction.  You cannot explain everything, so you leave breadcrumbs, and the viewer elaborates or fill in the blanks.  You always leave something for the imagination.  Abstraction forces the brain to make connections and stimulates curiosity, but in today's business world we want everything to be practical and clear; “conceptual” is often used as a dirty word.

Here is the problem: creativity and innovation often lie on the other side of discomfort - in the midst of ambiguity, uncertainty, tension, and risk.  Or on the other side of the so-called "inappropriate or silly" - in imagination, play, and serendipity.  Neither of these is welcome in our serious and sterile (but stable) work environments.

In Whistler, we got to spend time with some extraordinarily creative people.  We engaged in a highly ambiguous process that didn’t resolve into any clear-cut take-aways.  We left with questions, not answers.  For some participants, this is a problem: if we have no clear answers or solutions that we can implement then surely we didn’t achieve a good ROI.  However, in complexity, answers have fleeting value but questions persist.  Surely a good question that stimulates curiosity and imagination is worth much more than a temporary answer?

It’s ironic that in a world where most CEOs list innovation as a top priority, they do their best to rid their organisations of the conditions that could actually unleash the creativity of their people.

“We run this company on questions, not answers.” - Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO from 2001 to 2011

4 comments on “How organisational OCD is stamping out innovation and agility”

  1. It’s about constraints, isn’t it? The process in Whistler was indeed ambiguous and very open. It was possibly emergent, but not completely transparent.

    I think what confused me was that I initially went there to grab enduring questions, and then somehow found that we were meant to be working on some unclear design challenge. So I didn’t find too many answers but did leave with plenty of questions in the end. In the middle though was straight up confusion about the purpose of the gathering. Either I missed something, or it wasn’t clear, or it changed and I missed when that happened.

    1. Hey Chris, yes constraints are important. It's probably the most valuable thing I've learnt from my group relations/Tavistock community. Task, time, role, space etc boundaries need to be held to enable safety and emergence. I think in Whistler the task boundary could have been communicated more clearly.

      1. It’s hard to get constraints “just right” and retrospective coherence is always easier than predictive planning!

        Constraints has been probably the biggest learning I’ve taken from anthro-complexity at the moment. It permeates all of work and thinking.

  2. I just finished reading Steven Johnson’s new book “Farsighted.” It reinforces a lot of things we know and do navigating complexity. Although he doesn’t write about constraints per se, he does imply them in terms of confirmation bias, confidence bias, and need to expand the number of options on the table before making a complex decision. His story of the Vancouver Water Authority (MVRD) using a charrette is interesting.

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