The Social Age requires agility, from both organisations and individuals. It’s a time of constant change and what we did yesterday may not work again tomorrow because the ecosystem is evolving around us. When Henry Ford gave us the production line and Six Sigma optimised it, we thought that the challenge was to do things efficiently, to replicate and copy, to streamline and unify. Whilst there’s still a place for that, we may be missing a trick: the ragged edges of innovation and creativity are the antithesis of order, but may be what we need to be agile.
Optimisation was about control: every microscopic detail of placement and order. Agility is about community, about ‘sense making‘, about uninhibited curiosity, social reputation and the ability to share stories widely. Agility is about innovation, not replication.
Formal organisational hierarchy is a manifestation of control: to be agile, we have to create spaces for experimentation. The role of leadership becomes less about setting direction, more about facilitating co-creation.
Formal hierarchy already gives us the spaces for creativity: we call them teams, projects and meetings. What’s needed is permission: a co-created set of rules and a framework for action. We have to understand what’s safe, what the consequences are of thinking differently, what the rewards are for success.
But the curiosity we require for agility isn’t limited to the physical spaces of work or the formal structures that define the hierarchy: in the Social Age, we inhabit a virtual network of communities and spaces that are all our own. Our ability to create meaning, to be effective, happens within and alongside these communities.
In an agile organisation, leadership creates (and co-creates) permission to think differently: the story of change is then co-owned at every level. We use technology and an understanding of rules to create space for devolved creativity.
Creativity may be internally or externally moderated: internally moderated creativity is that which happens inside our heads, it’s unconstrained, whilst externally moderated creativity may be within a framework and within communities. It’s this latter type of creativity that we may most easily unleash within organisational spaces.
I’m working on a full curriculum of skills around this, but in the meantime, here’s a framework.
Under an externally moderated model of creativity, we can establish the community and put frames around our thinking. Within those frames, we explore potential, ideas are tested and assessed within the community and iterated forward. At each stage, the creative process is narrated, both individually, within the community and out to the organisation. It’s this narrative that provides the legacy.
Framing does constrain creativity, but it also provides realistic space and permission. Frames may be around time, around budget, around technology or around legal and ethical frameworks. For example, we may devolve creativity to a team, but do so with an attached timeframe and budget requirement. Or we may set them the task to establish specific data points that can link into business metrics or other projects.
Instead of giving them instructions on what they should do, we are creating a framework that they should work within. It’s a small but significant different. There is no process at play here, no system to determine action: the momentum will be generated within the community and the ground rules are up for grabs.
The devolution of this type of externally moderated creativity ties into notions of social capital and reputation: anyone, irrespective of their formal role within the hierarchy, can develop social reputation and exert social authority within these creative spaces.
Whilst process and formulae tend to cement our position and permission within a structure, a creative space allows us to curate our own presence according to our ability to add value. Within a truly devolved creative space, that should include permission to withdraw from the space if we feel we can add no value (although if we explore the roles we can take within a community, it’s unlikely there’s none we could fulfil).
The frames don’t need to be tight: it’s perfectly possible to iterate from very loose frames to very tight ones: as long as we provide a narrative from each, we can compare the outputs at each stage and see what we are ruling out. Again, this approach differs from traditional hierarchical approaches, which still miss out the good stuff, but do so unconsciously.
Similarly, the loose frames should not just take place at the top of the organisation (on the assumption that creativity and strategy can only cascade down), but rather should be co-created by framing them at all levels or, even better, creating a community that stands outside formal hierarchy but includes and welcomes people from each level. These may be self selecting or defined: again, we are able to challenge assumptions about resource deployment by allowing people to self select and deploy where they feel they can add value.
That’s a far more effective approach than just assuming someone’s time is where the value is added: it’s not. It’s about how effective they are, and that may not be a function of seniority or time.
The exploration we do within these frames may be considered the most traditionally ‘creative’ aspect. Most likely, it’s facilitated by the technologies we use, the technologies that draw us together and let us share ideas effectively. But the technology itself is incidental to the permissions: clarity around rules, permanence and consequence.
In the digital realm, we are used to permanence, but not necessarily to evolving consequence: what is permissible within a context today may be unwelcome tomorrow. When we ask people to engage in creative activities, they are exposing their evolving thought processes to scrutiny: it’s all well and good doing that in a safe and permissive environment, but in a years time, when there’s a round of redundancies coming, are you still comfortable with those weaknesses you expressed?
Exploration is iterative: we are looking to facilitate (within our frames) the expression, rehearsal and reworking of multiple ideas. Each one tested and assessed by the community to create data points for review and comparison.
The key to this stage is uninhibited curiosity: it’s not about following the process for how it was done last time. It’s about finding out how best to do it this time. If all other parameters are the same, it’s possible that the way we did it before will work just as well, but we have to question. Everything. Agility is about questioning and then questioning again and, once we have answers we are satisfied with, we add layers of context and interpretation and share our narratives, share our stories.
When we are exploring and testing our ideas, we need to quantify the change that we see. Encouraging quantification in what may feel like a qualitative field of creativity may seem counter intuitive, but remember that externally moderated creativity is not a soft alternative to scientific or process driven methodologies. It’s intended to make us more effective by being better adapted to our environment, so we have to measure. Measuring is not the enemy of creativity: it’s what validates it.
The determination of suitability is the test we apply to outcomes: what have we done differently, what was our thought process, what options did we pursue and which did we abandon. And why? The narrative of our curiosity is valuable both within our own learning process but also for others as they seek to replicate or innovate within their own space.
Narrative is about crafting a story of success and failure, analysing it to the best of our individual and group capability and sharing it. The cumulative effect of this analysis, narrative and sharing is learning. We individually learn how the creative process allowed us to achieve different outcomes through different efforts: we build our mental schema and toolkit to do it again next time, differently. Within groups it builds momentum and alignment around shared learning and shared success. For organisations, it build a validation of approach and tribal knowledge that is highly accessible and durable.
This is an outline framework for devolved creativity within organisations: there’s more depth to build into it, but i’m #WorkingOutLoud and sharing it as it evolves.
Organisations that are able to unleash creativity, that are able to create permission to think differently will be left with one final challenge: to reward agility.
As it’s often a factor of semi social communities, semi formal spaces, we have to pioneer ways to reflect social authority and reputation, forged through our actions within these communities, back into formal organisational performance management and reporting structures. We have to do this to ensure we call out and recognise excellence and give kudos to individuals and teams.
In the Social Age, this reputation is currency and if we are able, as an organisation, to recognise and reward it, it will strengthen both trust and durability of the relationship with the team.
Unlocking creativity, devolving it within frameworks, this is what makes an organisation agile, fit for the Social Age.