For creativity to flourish, let workers muddle a bit


January 23, 1995|By TOM PETERS

If you are a woman or man of action, and most of us in business like to think we are, then doing nothing is often the best action -- or nonaction.

Sounds strange, even absurd, in these times when rapid response is the only sane response.

Before you accuse me of having absorbed too much holiday cheer, step back and think about it. You'll be struck by a paradox.

The times do demand haste. But haste is achieved only when virtually everyone in the organization is master of her or his destiny -- i.e., free to do whatever needs to be done, with whomever from wherever. It's called empowerment.

And make no mistake, management behavior that most empowers others usually means doing nothing. Consider these parallels:

Skillful parenting, most experts (and parents) agree, hinges on letting go. The "most effective parents," writes family psychologist John Rosemond, "are those who are relaxed rather than constantly busy in their children's lives. . . . Instead of taking credit when their children behave well and feeling guilty when their children behave poorly, they assign their children . . . responsibility for their own behavior. They let their children make mistakes, realizing that the most valuable lessons in life are learned through trial and error."

On the other hand, Rosemond observes, "overly involved, overly vigilant parenting" tends to produce children who are "demanding and whining," need a great deal of adult attention, have "difficulty occupying [their] time creatively," and frequently complain about challenges being too hard.

Good schoolteachers also know the value of passivity, that teaching involves far more waiting than lecturing.

Psychologist Carl Rogers considered self-discovered learning the only kind that can change a person's behavior:

"It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another . . . has little or no significant influence on behavior. . . .

"Self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another. As soon as an individual tries to communicate such experience directly, often with quite natural enthusiasm, it becomes teaching, and its results are inconsequential. . . .

"When I try to teach . . . I am appalled by the results . . . because sometimes the teaching appears to succeed. When this happens, I find that the results are damaging. It seems to cause the individual to distrust his own experience and to stifle significant learning. Hence I have come to feel that the outcomes of teaching are either unimportant or hurtful."

The messages from this extraordinary confession by a master "teacher" are, I think, surprisingly clear:

* One learns only if one is allowed to muddle . . . and muddle and muddle;

* One "teaches" only if one allows learners to muddle and resists the temptation to intervene when they need help (which is usually when they need to muddle most);

* One can be an effective teacher only when one is himself or herself a perpetual learner, learning with her or his charges in a genuinely naive, sharing fashion.

If the boss is not openly confused (the essence of active learning and the antithesis of traditional, know-it-all managing), then employees will not enjoy their own open, active confusion -- the only precursor to useful exploration and learning amid ambiguous circumstances.

The corollary to the "do nothing" strategy is "slow down." Organizational researcher Karl Weick, in his book "The Social Psychology of Organizing," quoted the poet Robert Graves:

"He is quick, thinking in clear images;

"I am slow, thinking in broken images.

"He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;

"I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images."

In the age of speed, speed kills. The age of speed has become the age of look-alike products and services. The way out of the morass -- if any -- is new perspectives and unprecedented freedom for every employee in the organization. This will occur only when bosses and employees alike become bemused, confused muddlers -- perpetually naive learners who revel in their broken images.

"But you gotta deliver the product on time," you say.

Of course you do. Sort of. We're delivering more and more boring products on time -- to little or no avail.

We've gotten caught up in an accelerating parade of fads (I've been a fad maker in the past), and though we're clearly leading the global pack, we need genuinely fresh thinking.

And I for one am not impressed with what I'm seeing.

Tom Peters is a syndicated columnist. Write to him at Tribune Media Services Inc., Suite 1500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611; (800) 245-6536

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