Creativity at work and fostering open systems: Yoga as a metaphor

Opportunities to be creative present themselves in curious and sometimes unexpected ways and this holds true in both professional and personal realms of life. I stumbled into an opportunity to be creative during a particularly tricky yoga class and the experience got me thinking about creativity at work, as it relates to individuals and the organization as a whole. I love yoga but at this particular juncture, I have been out of the game for more than a year and I’m sporting a wrist guard. Given my recent hiatus, the teacher raised her eyebrows at me with a look that simultaneously said, “Are you sure you should be in here?” and “I’m proud of you for showing up.”

Yoga is special in that there are many different forms of the practice with prescribed sequences comprised of an array of poses, where each pose has many modifications in order to be inclusive and accessible. Over thousands of years[1] practitioners have found new and different places to go within the same position, a form of creativity that still persists within the community of practice.

How is this relevant to creativity at work? Most, if not all, work activities contain varying elements of structure. For a yoga practice, it is within the structured space of prescribed sequences that individuals can experiment, play, and discover the very best version of their actions. While structure can foster a sense of constraint, we do not often observe the liberating properties that it can provide within a given context. Despite my wrist predicament, the overall structure of the class enabled me to focus on what mattered most within that space. In other words, positive deviations within each sequence achieve desired outcomes.

Of course, this breed of creativity is a result of building on the foundations of what others have provided and ultimately adapting based on task-demands and the environmental cues. This type of recombinant creativity or innovation can occur at the individual or group-level and we observe it everyday in technology, fashion, music, and culinary arts. For example, in his Ted Talk “What is Original,” Mark Ronson discusses how sampling pervades the recording industry as artists make new interpretations of old recordings that inspire new sounds and top hits.[2] Due to the pace of change in our world, building upon good ideas and extending them across contexts is critical if we hope to address our most pressing challenges. While the nature of work is undeniably changing, there will most likely be some type of structure and precedent to support it. By acknowledging that structure can foster creative ways in which to accomplish work and solve problems, we move closer to a mindset of adapting in the face of change.

When we extend this idea beyond individual discretion and think about the organization as a whole, it becomes even more powerful. Holographic design includes principles of minimum specifications within a system so that individuals have the freedom and autonomy to self-organize and learn based on that which is most important versus status quo mandates or suffocating structure. Returning to the yoga metaphor, there are basic poses, strong traditions, guiding principles, and an underlying belief system. Within a working context, an individual may experience these as basic rules, behavioral norms, policy, and organizational culture. As a system, yoga is open enough so that anyone can participate and do so without strict adherence to any particular aspect of the system. Modifications are constant and members enable double-loop learning by not only self-monitoring, but questioning when a given act is appropriate. As related to the organization, when designs are open and inclusive, anyone within the system can offer a creative solution without being hindered by hierarchies or bottlenecked reporting mechanisms, providing a potentially endless source of generativity to the organization. Idea generation is not stifled as a consequence of design. In a world inundated by uncertainty and technological innovation, organizations constantly face fleeting moments to seize opportunities because organizational designs inhibit the requisite scanning, sensing and seizing.[3] This dynamic capability to reconfigure assets has been shown to stave off obsolescence during aging and overcome the innovator’s dilemma,[4] which is becoming more common and leading to overall shorter lifespans across organizations.[5]

The managerial implications are vast. At the individual level, managers must foster creativity instead of control amongst their employees. In other words, addressing several of management’s grand challenges: reducing fear and building trust, reinventing means of control, and expanding the scope of employee autonomy. [6] While the only limits to human creativity can be found within one’s own imagination, management must strive to “further unleash human imagination.”[7] Finding the balance between structure and autonomy in both management philosophies and organizational design is imperative to fostering an individual’s creativity at work and innovation throughout the organization.

Reframing our perspective about the role of structure as supportive versus restrictive can surprisingly enable the creative process. At the same time, we must be mindful of how structure is imposed in order to foster systems that are generative, especially in the midst of change. Although this may seem contradictory at first, when we acknowledge inherent tensions within any system or organization, we can more adeptly capitalize on the opportunities to create and innovate.

[1] http://www.yogabasics.com/learn/history-of-yoga/

[2] http://www.npr.org/2014/06/27/322721353/why-would-more-than-500-artists-sample-the-same-song

[3] Teece, D. J. (2007). Explicating dynamic capabilities: The nature and microfoundations of (sustainable) enterprise performance. Strategic Management Journal, 28(13), 1319–1350. doi: 10.1002/smj.640

[4] O’Reilly III, C. A., & Tushman, M. L. (2008). Ambidexterity as a dynamic capability: Resolving the innovator’s dilemma. Research in organizational behavior, 28, 185–206.

[5]http://www.innosight.com/innovation-resources/strategy-innovation/creative-destruction-whips-through-corporate-america.cfm

[6, 7] Hamel, G. (2009). Moon shots for management. Harvard business review, 87(2), 91–98.

Applied researcher & entrepreneur

Applied researcher & entrepreneur