Why aren’t people creative?

The room was deathly quiet.  The tapping of the pens on the polished table top stopped just after the question was asked and now all that could be heard was the soft squeaking of chairs as people nervously looked at each other.  Beads of sweat spontaneously appeared on various foreheads and mouths dried out as a silent prayer of “don’t ask me” was repeated by almost everyone in the room.  The silence stretched until it seemed like hours had passed and deodorant was pushed to its limits.  Suddenly a chair creaked as someone leaned forward and said “Well, how about this for an idea …?”

We’ve all seen this scenario in countless meetings.  Everything is there to discuss something, perhaps not even tangentially related, when a question is asked that requires you to be “creative”.  There is no easier way to get a room to quiet down than to ask people to be “creative” or “innovative” on the spot.  Why?  Why do people clam up when asked for their opinion?

In many ways it is fear, fear of being rejected, fear of being looked down upon, fear of being … wrong.

We’ve all had that feeling where we are in a room with our superiors or our peers and we don’t want to make a mistake.  We don’t want to be the person that people point to and say “Yeah, they actually said that.”  People want to be accepted.  They want to fit in.  They want to be “comfortable” in their interactions with people but when they are asked to be think quickly about a problem they freeze up not knowing how they should answer the question.

To be honest, meetings are probably the least likely place to be creative and innovative.  Yes, some people do feed off of the energy in the room and do come up with creative ideas.  For most people, however, the feeling that they exhibit is fear.

Susan Cain wrote a book called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” in which she talks about how various studies show that “… one out of every two or three people you know …” are introverts.  People who don’t like speaking up.  People who prefer solitude to group discussions.  Within various industries and market segments the percentage is higher or lower.  In Sales, Marketing, Retail and Advertising you will find more extroverts than introverts.  In IT, Library Sciences, Research and Development you will find more introverts than extroverts. 

Putting a bunch of people in a room and asking for ideas is fundamentally not a good way of doing things.  The introverts don’t want to speak up because that his not their personality.  The people who are extroverts, but are scared of being wrong, aren’t going to speak up.  That leaves a small portion of any room being dominated by the extroverts who are confident in their idea or themselves.  Susan Cain mentions this in her book:

Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends.  Velocity of speech counts as well as volume:  we rank fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones.  The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent – even though there’s zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas.

So, in a group the only people that seem to be listened to are those that talk fast, talk loud and, to put it simply, just talk.  This doesn’t mean that you are getting the best ideas, you’re just getting ideas from a small percentage of the group.

But Don, don’t collaborative forums allow you to expand the reach beyond just the meeting so that those introverts can also participate?”  Not always.  The deep rooted problems (fear of exposure, fear of being wrong) are still there, but maybe not as strong.  There is still a large percentage of the group that will not respond, that will not give feedback, that will just sit back, watch things happen and then realize, way too late, that they could have made a difference.

We need to embrace the introvert in all of us.  We need to stop stigmatizing being “wrong”, which is, in many respects, just someone’s opinion.  We need to foster a culture where everything we do is just another opportunity for learning and where we are given the time and opportunity to express ourselves without the fear that most of us experience.

Democracy doesn’t work

Democracy is an interesting concept, but in the workplace democracy doesn’t get the job done.  There needs to be a boss.  There needs to be someone who sets direction.  There needs to be someone to whom people can look to resolve issues.

Many of you are thinking of your Project Managers right now and I would just like to make a moment and say that you are completely … wrong.  I have been on a number of successful projects where the Project Manager, while technically “running the project”, was not actually the boss.  He/she was not the person to whom people went to solve problems.  They went to the Project Manager to get roadblocks removed, but the “architect” or the “team lead” or the “senior developer” was the person who had the vision to which everyone was working.  You could call them the”true” leader.

It is not a bad thing to have someone other than the Project Manager as the leader of the project.  For the most part Project Managers are in their role because they organize things well, make small talk with the business clients, can buy lunch for a group without needing to get approval and generally try to make life easier for the project teams.  Many Project Managers, however, are not technically adept enough to discuss the differences/similarities between WCF and RESTful services, much less provide solutions for the successful support of both types with a single code base.  Some Project Managers do not even understand the technology at all, but they can sure whip up a nice Excel spreadsheet demonstrating that they are within 3.2% of their projected expenditures with only a minor (<5%) chance of their exceeding their allotted budget as long as change requests 123, 124 and 141 are approved within the ten day period as agreed to in the original proposal.

Every project is different.  Every project requires a different type of leadership.  Where you have strong technical skills on the team there is a need for someone who can do business client liaising, someone to do the reporting and project plan coordination.  If you are lacking that deep technical knowledge then you need a Project Manager who is more technical and can tell his C# from his F#.  Someone who is able to discuss the relative merits of different types of transactional encapsulation across multiple non-distributed transactions.  Some projects require a Boss while others require someone who can assist the real boss.

Just as an organization must be careful as to how they organize and deploy High Performance Teams, however, there is also a need to understand what sort of Project Manager is required.  Placing a Project Manager who is very “hands on” and very opinionated about the technological decisions being made into a project that already has a de facto boss is going to be a great bone of contention that may never be able to be worked around.  Likewise, a PM that has little technical background will offer very little to a team that is adrift due to the lack of leadership.

You need a boss, but you have to make sure you don’t have two.