Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Creativity and Instability: Lessons for Management

In the news we just learnt that the famous painter Edward Munch wrote “painted by a madman” on his most famous painting “The Scream.” As in all his endeavors, that inscription and painting neatly combined insight and instability. His insight preceded research on the management of creative work by 125 years.

Management scholars just caught up. Research by Guiseppe Soda, Pier Vittorio Mannucci, and Ronald S. Burt published in Academy of Management Journal investigated what distinguishes teams that can produce highly creative products. Their work is quite a feat because it focused on one of the greatest strings of creative successes in modern television: the science fiction series Doctor Who produced by BBC. This is a series that has been widely praised as being high quality and creatively conceived throughout, but differences among episodes in the creativity were still large enough for the researchers to find the sources of creativity.

Ready for the answer? It is instability, as Munch noted and practiced. But the lesson is a little more complicated than that. It is well known that certain kinds of network connections generate creativity, specifically open networks in which each person gets diverse information by being connected to people who are not connected to each other. This is well known and makes sense but is not as reliable a predictor of creativity as one would expect. It also follows that getting a stream of diverse information creates creativity (indeed, some of my research shows that), but again it is a less reliable predictor than one would expect.

Why do these two factors work sometimes but now always? The answer is instability. An open network does not generate much creativity if it is stable, because there simply is not enough new people to spur creativity. Similarly, new content helps creativity little when the network is stable because it keeps being interpreted by the same people. Add some instability to the network, and suddenly openness and information diversity start operating as expected, increasing creativity.

In the case of Doctor Who, the effects were big enough that many modern fans do not even realize that the TV series has been canceled because of lack of audience interest, before being restarted and again experiencing significant success. Creativity won the day.

Of course, this research was not done for the purpose of giving us more good TV. Firms depend on creativity in many areas of activity, most conventionally in research and development, but also for product updates, new business model generation, and re-launch of product and service lineups that have gone obsolete in in the minds of consumers. This research tells managers that fans can and should shake up the teams that make such changes whenever significant creativity is needed. When managers follow Munch’s lead and generate instability, team members who are moved around may scream, but the increase in creativity is worth it.

Soda, Guiseppe,Pier Vittorio Mannucci, and Ronald S. Burt. 2021. Networks, Creativity, and Time: Staying Creative through Brokerage and Network Rejuvenation. Academy of Management Journal, forthcoming.

Friday, February 19, 2021

A Surge and Emotion: When Meaningful Work Becomes Too Busy

If you are like many of us, you are secretly or openly envious of those who have especially meaningful work. We may find meaning in some parts of our work but not all, and we are very aware of those who connect their work and passion perfectly. There is the artist who is so successful that all their time is spent creating art, not selling it. There is the humanitarian who works with an NGO that keeps its people in the field, in the places with the greatest need and effect of their work. There is the medical doctor who has stayed away from the repetition of general practice and specialist clinics and instead spends all the time diagnosing and helping unique cases.

In our envy, we overlook something special about meaningful work. It derives much of the meaning from the pursuit of quality, and as a result, it needs to be done at a slow pace. The violinist who has to prepare too many pieces resents the sacrifice in preparation. The humanitarian and doctor who need to solve problems too fast worry about failures. But then, what happens with the people doing meaningful work when there is a surge in the workflow? This is the topic of research by Winnie Yun Jiang published in Administrative Science Quarterly. Her research context is perfect for the topic because she examined how a US refugee-resettlement agency was overwhelmed by a surge in refugees, most from the Syrian war.

Consider the transition from doing meaningful work to being overwhelmed with work. The purpose of the work is unchanged – so many people are in great need, and this organization is their main line of support to find a place to live, find work, and quickly integrate into a new and very different society. This takes time and effort. Except there isn’t any time because there are many more refugees than before, so either the workers have to stretch their hours and efforts to the maximum or do less for each refugee, or maybe both. The work is the same, but the motivation and meaning fade.

Can an organization built on meaningful work handle this? They cannot easily expand because meaningful work is typically meaningful for some people but not others. They cannot reward their workers more because most organizations with meaningful work are low-budget outfits to begin with – they are built around the idea that meaningful work means that high pay is not needed. They cannot routinize work for speed because tailoring is at the core of meaningful work. This type of organization is not well suited to handle workload surges, so its members have to adapt.

Can the members handle it? Jiang found they adapted in multiple ways, with varying levels of success. One approach was to change their work by drawing new boundaries that eliminated the most time-consuming tasks, while still performing faster versions of the same service. For example, they would no longer go with the refugees to get drivers’ licenses but would make and give out information sheets on how to do so. A deeper change was to redefine the work so that the meaning given was a better fit to what they could accomplish in the new situation. The most common redefinition was to focus on the number of new resettlements they could handle instead of the attention to each one. Typically, though, the members would find a middle road with some focus on individuals while also making sure they handled the surge.

Were managers useful? Some of them were very helpful in the transition because they focused on sense-giving. They were able to reframe the work in ways that gave meaning even as the refugee surge made the old style of working impossible. They explained how essential the organization had become, and they empowered its members through expressing and focusing on positive emotions. Even as the organization had difficulty dealing with the surge, its leaders helped the members adapt. And that is a central feature of leadership: When the organization fails, or nearly fails, leaders can still keep its members motivated and functional.  

Jiang, W. Y. 2021. Sustaining Meaningful Work in a Crisis: Adopting and Conveying a Situational Purpose. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.