We often end up in situations where we can choose to do as we always have done and previously worked well, or break away from old habits to try something new.
In our private life, this may be the difference between living a predictable sometimes monotonous life with all the security it implies, or daring to change our choices of life directions in ways that can be enriching and stimulating, but may also come with a risk, not least having our worldview shaken and questioned.
For a company, it is more serious, and the choice between staying on a given course or changing direction can be decisive for the survival of the entire organisation.
A business philosophy and an organisational model where everything (processes, products, services, markets, customer management …) is constantly being challenged is a basic ingredient of the creative organisation that should penetrate all activities.
However, we humans are biologically designed to do things in ways that worked well before. Constant reassessments of what you can, what you do and why you do it, is therefore not a natural state of mind and perhaps the creative leader’s biggest challenge. But if you don’t, you risk becoming as the pike in the following experiments.
A hungry pike is placed in a large water tank. At the centre of the tank is a large glass cylinder that is reaching up to the water surface. Inside the glass cylinder there is a whole shelf of small fish. The pike tries immediately to get to the small fish, but is abruptly stopped by the glass cylinder each time. After countless failed and painful attempts, the pike has learned his lesson and gives up further efforts to catch the small fish. When the researchers then take out the glass cylinder so that the small fish swim freely in the same water as the pike, the bigger fish does not rethink its new learned behaviour but leaves the small fish alone. This experiment is the origin of the concept of “the pike syndrome” when we do not reassess our assumptions.
Reassessing the many smaller components and processes of an organisation can by itself be difficult. But it is even more difficult to rethink the fundamental perceptions and beliefs that we have built within ourselves over many years.
New events and developments that shake our fundamental personal beliefs can be extremely difficult to integrate in our minds and it is often the most prominent experts, who have previously been ground-breaking in their areas, that have the most difficulties to accept news that questions what they built their life works around.
These individuals have a much larger mass of knowledge and previous experience as a basis for a more advanced pattern thinking. By building these patterns for many years, they have become so fixed in their old ways of thinking that they find it hard to see the world with new eyes. The younger, less experienced, expert does not have as much established knowledge that locks the mind into a certain direction.
It is therefore no wonder that world history is filled with examples where intelligent creative people who have been leading experts in their areas got so locked up in their old perceptions and thinking patterns that they failed to break out of them, even when most of them around had long realized that something new has happened. Some of these positions may be similar to spells in the hope that the new disturbing findings will disappear.
Some well-known examples include Albert Einstein and his expressed doubts about the new quantum mechanics (1926) “God does not play dice with the universe.” The silent film mogul Harry M. Warner (1927) “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”, IBM’s President Thomas Watson, who built his career on main-frame computers large as factory halls (1943) “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Amiral William D Leahy, who believed, and hoped that the atomic bomb would not work (1945) “The bomb will never go off and I speak as an expert in explosives.”, 20th Century Fox Director Darryl Zanuck (1946) “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Finally, Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s Technical Director (1997), “Apple is already dead.”
It seems that the longer we are in a field and the more we build our careers in that area, the more we rely on our own expertise and our own experiences. This seems to be so deeply rooted that we are very reluctant to realize and acknowledge that development is moving forward much faster than ourselves.
The optimal research group therefore consists of a mixture of older experienced researchers with a high level of knowledge and experience that can put the problems in a broader context and younger colleagues who may question and bring new approaches in a permissive and non-assuming environment.
Many of the truly pioneering breakthroughs have also come when the researchers were relatively young. Thirteen of the Nobel Prizes has been awarded to laureates who had not yet reached the age of 35 at the time of the awards ceremony – often for work done several years earlier.
Einstein published his two most important articles, on the Special theory of relativity (the one with the formula E = M · C2) and on the Brownian molecular motions already as 26-year-old in 1905. His last really ground-breaking work on the General theory of relativity was published in 1915.
Werner Heisenberg, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics, was only 24 years olw, when in 1925 he formulated his ground-breaking theories in 1925, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize seven years later.
At the same time, it is important to note that by that time most of them had spent up to 10 years or more in their field of research, i.e. the time it generally takes to master an area.
In previous centuries, the tendency to be less able to rethink over the years was a minor problem, as very few truly revolutionary developments occurred during a person’s lifetime. Today, it is different when new developments no longer come every 50 years but could occur every 5 months.
As a creative leader, it is therefore necessary to constantly be aware of the risk of getting caught in old thinking patterns. It may also be useful to systematically use input from the youngest and most recent employees, by after a few months at work asking them what impressions, good as well as bad ones, that have surprised them the most.
But it is not only a question of avoid clinging to old experiences. It’s also a matter of having an open mind throughout life, where one does not assume anything in advance.
Before Thomas Edison employed someone, he invited the potential employee to a soup lunch. If the presumptive employee salted the soup salted before tasting it he did not get the job. Edison did not want to work with people letting assumptions guide their actions.
This blog post has been inspired by:
Davis GA (2011). Barriers to creativity and creative attitudes. In: Runco MA, Pritzker SR (Red.). Encyclopedia of creativity . Vol 1. London: Academic Press.
Sander B (2012). Vetenskaplig kreativitet och att uppnå flow vid mikroskopet. In: Klein Georg (Red.). Nya tankar om kreativitet och flow. Stockholm: Brombergs.