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Mitchell Langbert

Creativity Can Help Your Career and Your Accounting Firm

Here’s how.

September 17, 2009
by Mitchell Langbert, PhD

Creativity has come back into vogue, but we need to be judicious about it. Corporations honor creativity more often in word than in deed. Accounting firms require creativity, but an excess of creativity unsettles relationships. Few managers admit that the need for creativity is finite. But firms hire consultants and advertising firms and set up skunk works for a reason.

Henri Fayol, a French mining executive who was one of the founders of classical management theory, identified five dimensions of management: planning, directing, organizing, coordinating and controlling. Fayol’s theory constrains creativity. In today’s service economy many firms require a more dynamic and flexible model than Fayol’s. But the classical model continues to flourish. In auditing, for instance, a high degree of innovation is at times inappropriate, a lesson courtesy of Arthur Andersen.

Optimal approaches to creativity depend on technology, complexity, strategy, size, and human resources. A theory that says “it all depends” is a contingency theory. In industries like electronic gaming creativity is essential. In industries that involve large batch production innovation needs to be limited and gradual. Accounting falls in between.

Engaging Creativity

Creativity is a virtue, a concept that goes back about 2,500 years to Aristotle. Virtues are skills or competencies. Aristotle claimed that the exercise of virtue depends on judiciousness in finding a mean. A hunter who tries to wrestle a lion with his bare hands is rash; one who flees is cowardly. But one who uses his bow and arrow to competently shoot the lion shows courage, one of Aristotle’s cardinal virtues. Like courage, creativity needs to be appropriately applied. The absence of creativity leads to stagnation. Too much creativity is disruptive. Knowing when, where and how to be creative is a virtue. It is here that HR can play a role as an organizational change agent that identifies areas where creativity needs to be stimulated; supports management; and trains employees how to become virtuously creative.

This is so in our careers as well as in our firms. Creativity is of immense value when applied in the appropriate context. But it can be a career killer. Perhaps the most dramatic instance was Nikola Tesla, the inventor of AC electricity and radio. That he generally has not been credited as the inventor of radio (despite posthumously winning a law suit against Marconi’s firm) reflects a lifelong series of botched negotiations and interpersonal blunders.

In a famous experiment two dozen teams of managers were given a case study to analyze. In one dozen the experimenter planted a devil’s advocate, someone who creatively argued against everyone else. The experimenter gave the completed analyses to anonymous reviewers, who rated the case study analyses by the teams with the devil’s advocates as better than the teams without them. Then, the experimenter went back to the teams and asked them to remove one person. All of the teams with the devil’s advocates “fired” the devil’s advocates, the source of their competitive advantage. Creativity can be a career killer.

Managing Innovation

More specifically, there is a law of virtuous creativity. The more creative you aim to be, the more you need interpersonal, communication, negotiation and power-and-influence skills. Increasingly, creativity requires a team effort, and there too interpersonal skills, virtues, need to be developed.

The cover article of the September 2009 HR Magazine is Kathy Gurchiek’s piece about managing innovation. Gurchiek points out the importance to creativity of taking risks, being open, creating an atmosphere of trust and supporting failure. Importantly, she emphasizes that when the economy turns around new ideas will be adopted and that the time to think about creativity is now. But to energize your firm to think creatively, creativity needs to be supplemented with a broader range of virtues.

There is some debate about what creativity really is. Robert Weisberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, argues that creativity is a gradual process whereby ordinary thought is incrementally applied to problems. The great insights of scientists rest on and develop earlier insights. Others argue that there is a process of incubation, illumination and verification, whereby creative insights come in a flash.

There are many blocks to creativity. These include a bias against thinking in which some managers scoff at creative thinking and punish failure. The 1965 classic movie — A Thousand Clowns — is about a television writer who is creative but maladjusted. This Hollywood depiction reflects widespread bias against creativity.

Another block against creative thinking is what psychologists call selective perception. Our minds limit what they see to pre-existing models. If we walk into a room and see a friend, we notice the friend but not the color of the room. We perceive interpretable information. Artificial constraints result from selective perception. They are necessary to manage information but limit creativity. The legend about Aristotle’s most famous student, Alexander the Great, was that an oracle had predicted that whosoever untied the knot by which Midas had tied Gordias’ ox-cart would conquer Asia. When Aristotle found that he could not untie it with his hands, he cut it with his sword. In other words, thinking outside the box of artificial constraints can not only make us creative but can enable us to rule the world.

There are a number of useful techniques that can enhance creativity such as synectics, morphological forced comparisons and brainstorming. In brainstorming a group of managers comes up with ideas. Brainstorming encourages wild ideas. The ideas build on each other. Criticism is prohibited. The idea is to encourage diversity and quantity of ideas. A bad idea can be turned into a good one with a simple twist.

Conclusion

Firms can enhance creativity by bringing together diverse managers into teams, separating groups into isolated skunk works as described in the book Soul of a New Machine and encouraging idea champions. 3M is famous for providing play time, and one of the most famous examples was Spence Silver’s invention of Post-Its. Silver had invented a glue that did not completely stick, but he could not figure out how to apply it. After years of trying to come up with an application, his friend saw a page being torn off a bulletin board, and mentioned the idea to Silver.

Creativity is the source of progress. But rewards accrue to the virtuous, not the creative. The virtue of creativity needs to be balanced. We need to be wise in its application.

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Mitchell Langbert, PhD, is an Associate Professor, Brooklyn College. Widely published on the subject of human resource management, Langbert has consulted and served as an expert witness.