I went for a cliffhanger approach at the end of my last Creative Bite when the first question was "Is there time to be creative?" My argument was that there was a lot that we could do to create time through collaboration and sharing. When I reflected on the examples that there were of this, it made me think about another question, which is why we seem so ready to accept activity as a substitute for action?
I suppose I am being a bit semantic with the differentiation here. What I am trying to capture is my sense that sometimes we get our time filled with activity that has little impact. We attend ritual meetings that are often in search of an agenda, rather than responding to one. We do planning that meets external requirements but rarely informs actions. We are made busy.
Accountabilty generates a massive amount of this sort of activity. In some organisations in which I have worked, I seem to have spent so much time reporting to so many forums, that I didn’t really have time to do anything on which I could report. Risk Management is a brilliant example of this – and does it not speak volumes that we don’t seem to have “opportunity management"? At times, it feels like we have taken a common sense principle for planning - let’s think about what could go wrong and look at how we might avoid that happening – and created a cottage industry around it. We have calculations, formulae, registers and activity and, remarkably, things still go wrong. How can that be?
I know that many of us would agree that risk aversion is one of the factors that limits creativity. I am also aware that there are lots of people who have developed powerful arguments about the impact of overweaning accountability on creativity and I would support that.
We need to be accountable, especially if we are engaged in public service, but we need to get the balance right. We cannot have a situation where we envy the owl’s capacity to watch its own back, because that is what we feel we spend our lives doing.
My use of the term “action” is as a way of describing things that we do that are likely to lead to outcomes and to make a difference. I suppose that that is the link to creativity.
Lots of the activity that I described seems to be there to maintain the status quo, rather than to challenge and change it. It is an odd sort of activity that leads to paralysis rather than progress, movement that leads to stasis. Sometimes it becomes so ingrained in us and in our cultures that we cease to question it, we just do it. It is the classic case of being busy doing nothing, or at least nothing worthwhile.
I also suppose that I am talking about “disposable time”, the time that we have to make the difference referred to earlier. We need that time to be creative, but perhaps we need to begin by being creative in how we manage our time. Perhaps we need to make that this month’s creative challenge – how can we see what we do differently? How can we take a creative approach to accountability so that it becomes a genuine attempt to find the value of what we have done, rather than a process of justification?
It is a challenge that takes us away from the obsession that we often appear to have, and makes us think about creative management, something that we need to think about much more often.