Building blocks for a creative future

Too much control at work leaves us frustrated. Allow people to be more creative and the whole business benefits, argues Jackie Townsend
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The Independent Online
Last weekend two friends and I went mountain biking. I'd only been twice before and the terrain was rougher than I had expected, and it was all a bit of a shock to the system. My friends gradually edged ahead of me and soon they were both flying down the slopes while I clung on desperately. I clutched the brakes, afraid that I would fall off at any minute.

But it was hard work. Suddenly it occurred to me that what I really needed to do was to loosen my grip, not tighten it. I should let the bike - and me with it - ride lightly over the ground and let the wheels continue to go round at a normal speed. In that way I wouldn't need to work so hard, and it could even become more enjoyable.

It took courage to do it and I have to admit that I didn't do it for long. But it did get easier and I'll be having another bash at it soon. I'm learning to let go.

The incident got me thinking about the merits of letting go generally. Wasn't it universally true that the more tightly we hold onthe more likely we are to be thrown off balance by all the unexpected bumps we encounter along the way? Instead, perhaps, we can learn to trust what turns up, trust, indeed, the whole process of change. To loosen up a bit when we step on to the workplace bicycle every day.

In the past few weeks these pages have offered solutions to a a whole range of problems - stress management, skills training, selling techniques, management strategies. Yet many people continue to see work as a major source of anxiety, unhappiness, insecurity, frustration and turmoil - caused largely by change.

Yet everyone knows that things change, move on. So why the angst? Is it that the changes are not what we expect them to be? There seems to be something fundamentally wrong in the way we are looking at things. Chairman Mao in the 1960s was associated with the saying that if you weren't part of the solution you were part of the problem, and I'm beginning to wonder if this aphorism does not apply equally today. In the 1990s there are new voices demanding to be heard (stressed-out managers for one), old systems are being overthrown and there are changes in the political and social order.

Could the truth be that we are part of the problem and not our external environment at all? We create a problem in ourselves by expecting stability, and holding fast to our patch while the political, social and business structures re-organise themselves around us, leaving us untouched and unscathed. No wonder we are disappointed and confused.

Albert Einstein observed that problems cannot be solved at the same level at which they are created. So it's not going to help to keep banging the same old stress management drums. Yesterday's solutions - even the recent ones - will not solve today's problems. What we need is a truly creative response to change.

To me, that change above all centres on the notion that we are leaving behind the industrial era and moving into one in which communications rule the roost. The revolution is so great, I would argue, that it may even amount to us having to create a new paradigm - that word beloved by management gurus - for the age. Peter Drucker, who writes books on management, believes that the Western world is undergoing such a paradigm change. "Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. Within a few short decades society - its world view, its basic values, its social and political structures, its arts, its key institutions - rearranges itself. We are currently living through such a transformation," he says.

Another essential part of that change we are experiencing, I would suggest, is in the greater attention being given to individual aspirations, self- expression and creativity. It has to do with personal experience and feelings - gut responses are back, and it's OK.

We are affected directly by what we do at work and the environment in which we do it because we spend so much time there. Our place in the organisation matters to us, as does the extent to which we are valued. I don't believe this is something which is addressed by any of the coping mechanisms which are being introduced into management nowadays. The techniques are lagging behind the reality.

Being allowed to be creative as an individual, and to do things in your own way within the organisational structure is a way of bringing a person forward into his or her own arena of personal responsibility, personal growth and empowerment. To put simply, it makes you feel good to take your own ideas, use them in your own way and watch the results. This can be done at any level in any organisation. All it takes is for the people currently holding the reins to be willing to relinquish a little bit of control and to share.

This is far from being mere theory. It can happen, and it has happened. Some time ago the British ambulance service was in disarray and unable to cope with the demands made on it because its computer system failed to deliver. Before a new one was installed, all employees, both in the front line and back-up staff, were consulted and their needs taken into account. And it worked: the service is now held up as a shining example of a computer database that really works for everyone.

Against a backdrop of fossilised management theory and tired ideas, there are other isolated instances of fresher thinking like the ambulance service's response to a problem. I recently attended a conference called "Creating a Productive Workplace". The main focus was how the design and structure of buildings and the physical environment inside them affects the people working in them, for better or worse, and how that could be improved. The opening address was on the nature of pleasure, joy and comfort and how our behaviour is primarily motivated by the pursuit of them. The speaker was a professor from the University of Laval in Canada. His conclusions were that pleasure and joy were transient states while comfort and happiness were states of stability, in that the person was not moved to either leave his environment or want to change it. Comfort and happiness therefore equal indifference!

Another speaker told us that 80 per cent of staff in ordinary offices suffer from sick building syndrome and that 90 per cent of computer installations failed to meet their original specifications. When employees are put in front of a PC all day, as opposed to doing non-computer tasks, their productivity drops by around 50 per cent. The speaker illustrated how this gap was narrowed by creating an outside environment inside - using air-cleaning systems, negative ions, humidifiers, and full spectrum lighting.

A psychologist argued that in order to be creative we need to be a little uncomfortable. Too much comfort and we slouch around doing very little; too little and we get up and walk away. There needs to a slight tension. He talked about the boundaries within which we live and work and which are brought into being by the action upon one another of forces which are not necessarily opposing but are different. These boundaries exist as much inside our heads as in our physical environment. Shigeru Uchida, a Japanese designer, describes the Japanese notion of a boundary as originally that between the sacred and the profane. The speaker's thesis was that such boundaries create a tension which acts as a stimulus to the creative process.

I know just how many individuals and organisations, both academic and in business, want to help and have good ideas and sound practices that can ease this process of change and help us to accommodate it. I believe creativity is the key, and imagination, inventiveness, problem-solving on a personal level and being willing to receive ideas and attitudes that are new and different are ways to practise being creative.

The kind of buildings in which we work are vital too. We have moved from imposing, highly decorated Victorian buildings to streamlined, cement blocks with lots of glass and airy, spacious interiors. Nearly everyone has a mobile phone, a PC with or without the Internet. The world has been reduced to the size of a computer screen and you can take part in an international conference without leaving your office, or even your home. The explosive nature of the communications network means that we are bombarded with information. There's nowhere left to hide. The place where we cope with this revolution is of central importance.

Just outside Amsterdam there is a building which is the headquarters of NMB Bank. It is made up of several medium-sized towers, all linked by walkways on the inside. The design aims to achieve a better balance between the organisational requirements of the bank and the needs of the staff as individuals, as well as bankers.

It was designed by Ton Alberts, an architect known for working on a consciously human scale. It has sloping walls (to deflect the sound of passing traffic upwards and create better acoustics; also the sun's heat is used more efficiently) and there are no 90-degree angles. It is light and spacious, with wide staircases going only short distances so that staff are encouraged to use the stairs rather than the lifts, which are built into the walls in such a way as to be easily overlooked. The colours are light and soft and every wall is different. The aim is to allow people to go about their work in a relaxed manner. "They shouldn't feel they're working. They should just give the idea that they're 'getting on with things'." It is low on energy consumption, using natural ventilation, cooling systems and daylight to full advantage. The feeling is welcoming and refreshing, and one of lightness.

I predict that unwieldy management structures will slowly fall away to be replaced by more accessible ones, more conducive to personal comfort, both mental and physical. As for me, I'm off for a bit of free-wheeling practice on that mountain bike of mine. And I won't be applying the brakes - well not much anyway.

Jackie Townsend is a director of the Brighton-based consultancy Greystone

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