How to unblock your people’s creativity

“We need more self-starters” said Matthew.  I could have sworn he was glaring at me.  He had been CEO for a year now.

“In what way?” I asked.

“Our people just won’t make decisions.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“I don’t know!  We’ve empowered our people but they’re still bringing all the decisions to us.”

“Frustrating.” I agreed.  ”So what have you tried?”

“Like everyone else, we’ve done our OCI, we’ve come out…”

“…red and green.”  I finished for him.  ”And you want blue.”

“How did you know?”

“Because if people are shivering, I’m pretty sure when I look at the thermometer what it’s going to say”.

Matthew sat back.  He seemed deflated.

“What did you do next?” I prompted.

“All sorts of stuff” he went on.  ”We’ve done workshops to discuss values, agreed behaviours, did some ‘honest conversations’, introduced a new model for change……every week I’m opening up a new session or talking about the need to get things moving, but nothing is happening”.  Matthew had now gone from deflated to angry.

“What were you hoping would happen?”

“That people would get engaged and start making decisions and trying new things.”

“And why would they do that?”

Matthew looked at me like I had grown an ear in the middle of my forehead.

“What do you mean ‘why would they do that’”?

“I mean exactly that….why would going to a workshop on how we’re supposed to behave suddenly make me implement ideas”?

“Because…..”  Matthew started.  Then stopped.  He thought for a while.

“OK then”, he went on.  ”So what should I do?”

“Start seeing what your people are doing as completely sensible.  Start seeing that, if you were them, you would be doing exactly what they are doing”

“But I would fight for my ideas, I would…..”

“Hang on”.  I interrupted him.  ”You’re describing what you would do.   I asked you to see it as if you were them, not if they were you.  And this includes if you were in the current organisational design you’ve got going here.”


“OK, take your Product Development area.  The org chart is showing five reporting layers.  We analysed this last month, and you and I both know that the complexity of the work requires three layers at most.”

“But they’ve always had five layers and they tell me it can’t change.”

“I understand that.  But this is the area you are most frustrated with.  And if we have more reporting layers than natural work layers, somewhere in there people are being subjected to well-meaning managers who simply can’t add value.

“Can’t add value?”

“That’s right.  Value meaning providing context, purpose, integrating work, asking questions that help people with their own decisions.  Valuable feedback.  Coaching.  For people subjected to a manager who is in the same layer of work that they are, the natural thought is ‘why the hell does this guy get to decide whether my ideas are any good?  I should just go straight to their manager.’

“What’s this got to do with empowerment to implement ideas?”

“If the manager can’t add value from a wider perspective, when ideas are presented by their people, or when they see what’s changed, they will find it hard to integrate them.  Hard to see how it can fit.  They’ll feel like they are taking too much of a risk, or might decide to take no risk at all.”

“Which causes…”

“Either changes that don’t work, or no changes.” I continued.  ”And if you work in a situation like that for long enough….what does a sensible person do?”


“In theory.  But most won’t because they have good memories, social contacts and still believe in the purpose of the place.  So this means they’ll….”

“Stop producing ideas” Matthew concluded.

“Spot on.”  I agreed.  ”So, given you’ve got a clear intent and you’ve worked out your functional areas, what do we need to do next?”

“Get the right number of layers in there”

“And why?”

So people can get some leadership that, instead of stifling creativity and innovation,  actually adds value to it“.


Adam is a partner of The Working Journey a niche consultancy that designs organisations into creative accountable enterprises that deliver...using ideas such as you just read. Want to chat? Send him an email by clicking here.

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