Arms out in front of you, palms inward, fingers together, and thumbs outstretched – clasp the non-conformist’s neck so that fingertips touch along the spine and thumbs are parallel over Adam’s apple; apply gentle pressure until noise stops. Metaphorically falling barely short of this, there are multiple ways corporations stifle initiative and creativity within their ranks. Senior leadership claim public and vocal support for diversity and innovation, yet in the broad spectrum, businesses steadily and silently stifles diversity of thought and innovation as a sine qua non of remaining a viable candidate for retention and promotion. Despite the pressure to conform, the predilection of employees to generate innovative ways to do more with less is not in dispute. Innovative solutions do not become “significant realities through the actions of a single person. It requires a team effort. It requires solid trust and strong relationships. It requires deep competence and cool confidence. It requires group collaboration and individual accountability. To get extraordinary things done... leaders have to enable others to act" (Wilson, 2010, p. 8).
In the military, for example, “the current force is just under one-third smaller than it was in 1990” (Hall, 2008, p. 25). “Unlike the years of Vietnam, during the days of the draft, today’s enlisted ranks do not include the extremely disadvantage. Instead, the ranks are filled with the upwardly mobile working class, 96% of whom have graduated from high school, compared to only 84% of the rest of America” (p. 28). This is a snapshot of America too. The (more mature and intelligent) changing face of the military means that the leadership need to lead their men and women in ways that do not parallel the requirements their leaders had when they were leading them so many years ago (Hall, 2008). Naval leadership, like business leaders around the globe, are obliged to understand the roots and nature of creativity if they are to recognize it at its source, encourage it, and maximize the benefits of the creative process. This paper will use the US Navy as a study group to explain this critical issue on a broader scale.
Demographic Changes in The Navy
To discuss how initiative, innovation, and creativity are stifled in the Navy, one must first understand who is doing the containing, and who is being contained. With a one-third reduction in total force (Hall, 2008), and the shift from a “garrison force mentality” (p. 72) of the in-place, pre-9/11 recruited, leadership clashing with the “expeditionary force mentality” (p. 72) of the post-9/11 recruits (Hall, 2008; Houppert, 2005), old leadership has got to correct itself to match the needs of the new Navy; that means the needs of the younger people in it. “Almost one half of active duty service members are younger than 25 years old” (Hall, 2008, p. 26). They were in high school during 9/11; some were not even driving a car yet; now they are driving ships and fixing airplanes. These young people, Millennials, hold a different worldview of intrinsic motivation, personal values, recognition and rewards, and how they should commit to institutional structures they may (or may not) agree with (Santrock, 2008). Naval and International Corporate Leadership has got to accept this reality if it is to maximize the potential available from gleaning innovative ideas from this, the brightest generation of Naval service members in our history (Hall, 2008). Houppert (2005) reports that the Navy deploys 300% more often than it did just a decade ago. A leaner force, with an increasing mission, means bigger challenges needing more creative solutions.
Does your organization face increased workload, lessening budget availability, and an increasingly younger workforce who appear to you to be less willing to take on these challenges without constant direction? Guess what. It’s not going to change until your thinking about it does.
The Leadership Approach
To continue to adapt to the changing mission sets of urban and littoral warfare (yes, your business feels like urban and littoral warfare too) combined with the myriad of humanitarian support (see also: HR) requirements we, and the US Navy, have some difficult choices to make. Leadership must work to actively discontinue the processes (and cultures) that stifle initiative and creativity, then advance the efforts (and maturity of mentorship) that foster it. This means adopting a wider use of the Steven Kerr-like methodology of continual education for executives that explains, sells, and constantly realigns corporate goals, infuses a culture of cross-communication, and maximizes the strengths of each part of the organization to assist each other part (Greiner, 2003). The omitted bit of this endeavor, and the failure of our effort to maximize the value brought by the newest generation of employees is the cultural blockage of this training from successfully drilling down to the deck plates. The optimistically intended instructions, directions, and initiatives written at the company’s top seemingly fail to access and realign the culture of middle management (in the Navy’s manpower this is the Chiefs) where the efforts of orders and producers amalgamate.
The Chiefs’ Mess; or, Your Managers Meeting Without You. The Chiefs’ mess “is composed of individuals who know the domain’s grammar of rules and are more or less loosely organized to act as gatekeepers to it. The [mess] decides whether an individual’s performance meets the criteria of the domain” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; as cited in Petocz, 2009, p. 410). The Navy domain includes the training (both formal and informal) and the assumptions and perceptions about the military culture, standards, and availability (and attractiveness) of opportunities to innovate. As the sole gatekeepers to which instructions are actualized, promoted, and practiced, it is middle management (not you) who is a hands-on, credible, and powerful source of the culture support (or not) of initiative, innovation, and creativity in the domain. The means of advancement (and recognition of creativity) is determined by the field. Altering status quo (through creativity and innovation) is a threat to the system that those in power believe to be infallibly competent in producing results (Christensen, 2005). It is, for them, that same infallible system within which they excelled and were thrust to the top of by their hard work and conformity, to change it would be to admit that it (and by transference, them) were flawed. Whew, big statement.
Take that in again.
Without the support for innovation and creativity (in the form of appropriate advancement or recognition) the current generation of extrinsically motivated Sailors is less likely to perform to the standards that the previous generation of intrinsically motivated Sailors (now leaders) believed that they performed to. It is not all bleak news; “[o]ften, an innovator's ideas are treated skeptically in a practice or organization that tends to be adaptive. Yet, somehow, a few of these isolated groups or individuals manage to overcome resistance, barriers, and limited resources to make change happen” (Wilson, 2010, p. 8). The beauty of creativity is its ability to be creative about overcoming the structural and cultural barriers against it.
Creativity in The Navy
Although not always recognized or appreciated, creativity and innovation must occur in every organization (Christensen, 2005; Driver, 2001). “Creativity does not only involve producing novelty or originality” (Fink, et al., 2010, p. 1687). For today’s employee, creativity is found in the generation of new processes, timesaving techniques, and using the shrinking number of tools for an increasing number of missions (Hall, 2008; Houppert, 2005). “[A]n organization’s ability to promote and guide creativity has been identified as business’s greatest challenge in terms of survival and profitability. Consequently, creativity, which has been defined as employees’ engaging in valuable activities for improvement at their own initiative, is a competence that many organizations strive for today” (Driver, 2001, p. 28). The Navy has a number of success stories in this endeavor, and an equal number of barriers in place to halt it.
Effective and Ineffectual Leadership. Leaders of all stations set the tone for innovation and risk taking (whether to the individual, the budget, or the mission). “Effective leaders build confidence by encouraging innovation and calculated risk taking rather than punishing or criticizing whatever is less than perfect. Leaders must be attentive to how they make people feel when they take risks and fail” (Driver, 2001, p. 28). This level of psychological maturity (to recognize which attitude to adopt with which specific (unique) subordinates) is lacking from formal and informal education at the deck plates. Again, the generation gap and the accompanying attitudes about relying on intrinsic verses extrinsic motivation to compel operational commitment (Hall, 2008; Houppert, 2005) is not the only issue. Leadership must understand that the majority of the Navy is starting families sooner (and making other adult choices), are more educated, joining younger, and staying longer than the generation that came with the current leadership (Hall, 2008). The communication methodology from generation to generation is enormously different (Houppert, 2005). The new generation texts, e-mails, MSMs, IMs, Facebooks, and exploits varies other forms of electronic mediums at a pace that older generation may not merely be uncomfortable with, but may also find distasteful (Santrock, 2008). This distaste can, through transference, become a global view that an individual’s aptitude (or his or her entire social group’s) (Muchinsky, 2006; Santrock, 2008). It is hard for a leader to substantiate that he encourages initiative and creative input from his subordinates when he discounts their intelligence, abilities, methodologies, and commitment before the conversation begins. The new generation is also more emotional than the previous one who believes in, and often insists upon, a “mask of stoicism” (Hall, 2008, p. 57). “Stoic behavior is rewarded, whereas emotionality is not only discouraged but often punished” (p. 57).
Ineffectual leadership fails to fold the personality and specific circumstances into its deliberations (if any) about how to react to subordinates’ attempts to bring new ideas to the table (Dinca, 1999). Organizations could benefit from training programs that emphasize to all levels of leaders that, “in real life, solutions to problems are not so much ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ as they are ‘feasible’ and ‘infeasible’” (Muchinsky, 2006, p. 105).
Smart leadership knows that, “a creative organization has values, beliefs, and norms that encourage creative behaviors. It encourages diversity of membership and viewpoints and fosters members’ beliefs in the safety of experimenting and handling projects outside of their normal area of responsibility or the normal business process, even if mistakes are made” (Driver, 2001, p. 29). Again, do the current career-path and advancement requirements doctrines inhibit this kind of lateral motion?
Resource Managers Instead of Leaders. Don’t just throw money at it. The Houppert (2005) statistic of 300% more deployments with one-third less Sailors does not say everything about the challenge budget and resources supply the Navy. Industrial and organizational psychologists have debated for years over the amount of emphasis to place on resources as a means to encourage or suffocate initiative and creativity (Christensen, 2005; Muchinsky, 2006; Schwarz, 2002). Sailors often find themselves in the role of spontaneous problem solvers (Hall, 2008). They, like researchers, know that sometimes one has to work with what one is given. Here, resource shortfalls can be good or bad for the creative process. Contrary to customary logic, “inadequate funding can both stimulate and hinder creativity. Many researchers are at their most creative when they need to improvise, without a large infrastructure and when working with inadequate budgets” (Greener, 2005, p. 403).
There is a limit to what can be accomplished however. In my twenty plus years of service I have recognized an alarming trend of dishonesty in resource availability verses operational capability reporting in the Navy. With few exceptions, mid-level Naval leadership continues to report itself as 100% operationally capable to the upper (echelon three and higher) chains of command even though they are not. Only by reporting oneself as successful, even given ridiculously limited resources, is a Commanding Officer (CO) able to keep him or herself a viable candidate for promotion. The requirement for the CO to report unrealistic management prowess changes the culture below him or her where his subordinate leadership is also glossing reality to keep the entire operation running, at any cost. While one may assume a certain amount of creative paperwork and record keeping is needed to accomplish this, it is not the kind of positive innovation and creativity the top executives would deliberately approve of given the bigger picture. Do you, as an organization, allow your leadership to fail – how about ask for help without sounding inept?
This failure, unlike one borne of middle management, is the fault of the very highest levels of the ranks. Top brass must ask themselves tough questions about whether or not they are the solution or the problem. “For example, does the leader reward or punish people when they fail? Does the leader share positive or negative stories about mistakes, and does the leader take time to learn from these failures?” (Driver, 2001, p. 28). Steven Kerr believed that topnotch leadership “should be injected into people’s DNA by the way they are [lead]” (Tarley, 2002, p. 53). For the Navy, an intolerance for 80% performance, given an 80% funding (in a non-surge status), creates a flight line (or pier) of resource managers and book-keepers instead of operational leaders. “[B]elow a certain threshold, inadequate funding becomes a pervasive hindrance [to the creative process]” (Greener, 2005, p. 403).
By allowing COs to save their reputations (and careers) while reporting shortfalls of operational readiness, which are currently read as failures, to be read as real time reflections of the deficiencies in hard and soft resources, top ranking Naval executives would foster an atmosphere where a cross-pollination of innovative (positive) techniques by other COs would be possible among their peer group. People cannot talk about problems they are not allowed to admit they have (Hall, 2008). With open communication about failure, in a way that does not shun those who have attempted success, Steve Kerr’s concept of boundarylessness (Davenport, Prusak, & Wilson, 2003) would be achievable. The Steven Kerr “concept of boundarylessness serves as a powerful integrator. It is about helping the organization assimilate to change rather than rejecting it” (p. 212). It is from this setting that resource management can reemerge as creative leadership. A perceived organizational culture of “support for creativity, tolerance of differences, strategic alignment, allowing for self-initiated and unofficial activities, capitalizing on serendipity, fostering broad communication and exposure to diverse stimuli, knowledge sharing, and the ability to delay judgment have all been identified as critical factors for organizational creativity” (Driver, 2001, p. 28).
Creative organizations, whether for profit or not, are successful organizations (Christensen, 2005; Davenport, et al., 2003; Driver, 2001; Luecke, 2003; Muchinsky, 2006; Schwarz, 2002). The chronicle of the United States Navy is replete with success stories of initiative, innovation, and creativity. Let us not settle for good enough however; the opportunity to maximize the potential of the education, potential, and perspective of the new generation of employee (who outnumber leadership (Hall, 2008)), is too great an opportunity to be lost on a mulish determination to adhere to status quo. We must reevaluate how we address our ranks, resources (human and material), educational venues, and means of communicating the corporate value system from the top down (and back up).
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