Sorting, splitting, subordinating

June 5, 2014 by
Filed under: The RSA 

In preparing my annual lecture on the RSA’s new, emerging, world view ‘The Power to Create’, I have reached a section on barriers to people living creative lives. One of these barriers comprises the dead hand of outdated institutions. I have come up with three ways in which institutions stifle creativity. I am looking for readers’ thoughts on these ways; are they right, have I given them fitting names (as always with typologies one tries to be alliterative) and are there others I have missed?

The first creativity-sapping habit of institutions is ‘sorting’. This is a core characteristic of hierarchies, legitimated by values of efficiency and merit. The assumption is that only a certain number of roles within the institution can be creative – in the sense of allowing and expecting autonomy, voluntary engagement and fulfilment – and that a vital role of management systems is to sort posts and people into a pyramidical structure with the most creative jobs at the top along with the most attractive incentives. Along with hierarchical sorting there is also the vertical sorting of skills, tasks and functions.

Recognising the malign impact of sorting is not to ignore the requirements of organisational working. But even taking requirements of clear decision making, functional specialisation and the varying ambitions and life stages of workers into account, there is still a huge amount of dysfunctional sorting in institutions resulting in most workers feeling largely unengaged, unrecognised or irrelevant at work. Facing problems with recruitment, retention and motivation, many organisations are seeking to address the consequences of sorting – but more intractable are its causes in the logic of hierarchical working.

Sorting is also a core purpose – for some, the core purpose – of most education institutions. The ultimate goal of formal education should surely be to inculcate and sustain a love of learning, and to guide young people into finding the areas in which they can most fully and successfully express themselves to the wider benefit of society. Instead we have a system which prizes one set of intellectual attributes and then sees its role as forcing young people to focus on these attributes and then be sorted by whether or not they possess them.

Creative thinking and action often arise from the tensions and synergies which emerge between our different social roles. But ‘splitting’ is a second creativity-constraining habit of institutions. This involves dividing people by their institutional role and separating this from the other multiple roles they occupy. One example is the way we sometimes talk about the different interests of public service workers – teachers, police officers, care workers – and public service consumers – parents, citizens, clients. But, of course, most teachers are parents, all police officers are citizens and most care workers will at some time or another find themselves or a loved one being a client. The question raised by the accusation of producerism made at public service workers (an attitude which is said to be a barrier to innovation and compassion) is not only its extent but how it can come about at all, given that nearly all public service producers are also public service consumers.

This phenomenon is just as common in the private sector. Dan Pink has recently argued that a growing majority of modern jobs involve one form or another of sales. There is nothing inherently problematic about the act of selling – it is the principal way information travels in markets – but when selling involves persuading someone else to do something which you know, or you strongly suspect, is not in their interest it requires the seller to dull his or her moral senses. The most egregious example is the financial services sector where instead of sellers being encouraged to work cooperatively and creatively with clients to discover what their real needs and interests are (as they would want to be treated themselves), they have repeatedly been incentivised to take advantage of information imbalances to mass sell poor products on the basis of misleading information.

Splitting is particularly prevalent in institutions displaying the third creativity inhibitor, ‘subordination’ (can anyone think of a better ‘s’ for this?). The process of subordination was first identified by Max Weber (who was a fan of bureaucracy). He identified the distinction between an institution’s substantive (real world, value-based) goals and its procedural (bureaucratic, rule-based) goals. Weber observed that organisations over time tend to subordinate the former to the latter.

A similar process can be observed in corporations established by innovative producers to offer a market-beating service or product, which subsequently become obsessed by size or shareholder returns. John Kay cites ICI as a business that was highly successful while its goal was to be a world class chemicals company but which soon crashed after it changed its goal and strategy, explicitly subordinating everything to the maximisation of shareholder returns.

Subordination also happens in organisations that claim to be operating in the public interest. Instead of creatively working through the inherent tensions between short term organisational interests and public duty, institutions tend to subordinate the latter to the former (dealing with the cognitive dissonance this involves by asserting an identity between the two). The Police Federation was a classic example of this process, which is why it was such a turning point when it adopted in full the recommendations of the independent/RSA panel.

One obvious riposte to all this is that people can be creative doing bad stuff as well as good. The phrase ‘creative accounting’ springs to mind. My response – which may sound naive – is that people will on the whole be more creative when they feel they are doing something which is valuable and valued. But this is for another part of the speech to address…..





  • David Archer

    Matthew I like your typology of these 3 barriers to creativity.
    I might suggest ‘subverting’ as a better title for your third inhibitor. In my experience it’s when the value-based goals of an organisation get subverted (or indeed corrupted) that people find their motivation and ability to be creative really destroyed.

  • Oliver

    Despite all the lip-service paid to creativity, especially recently, there are unfortunate dimensions to this that most of us would struggle to accept. Firstly, most of us are not creative. Secondly, creative people and creative ideas cause most people to feel upset, threatened, insecure, defensive and hostile. It may well be the case that each of us has the potential for creativity, for awe inspiring feats of brilliance. But too few have the courage to embrace this, and instead seek to attack it in a preemptive strike.

    But in any case, why creativity? There must have been something that initially drew you to this as a subject. Explore that. And don’t let it be the fact that it’s flavour of the month. Don’t let it be the emergence of an hour glass labour market, or technological changes that will force a change in human capability, or the dangers of increased social inequality if this continues to go unaddressed. All that may be true, but it can’t be enough of a reason to get on a stage and pronounce on something as complex, ethereal and profound as creativity; perhaps the one true measure of our potential as a species. Do you work on oil paintings in your spare time or something? Was it when you were younger? Were you an artist, actor, dancer, athlete, musician, sculptor, poet, filmmaker, or something like that? Whatever it was, let that be your motivation. Have it come from the heart and find a way to interweave that narrative.

    Before Alan Greenspan was Alan Greenspan he was a very good Clarinet player in his youth. Not a mere hobbyist; he was a touring musician, and a player of high level skill. There are many others like him who trained their minds through creative exploits and went on to do other things where they excelled in a supercharged way.

    What I do could be classified as creative, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years. And I wouldn’t do what you’re about to do. I’m not yet qualified to carve it up and speak on barriers to people living creative lives. But if your creative past led you to where you are today and you owe your current success to those previous creative endeavours, then go for it.

  • Ian Duffy

    I’d go with David Archer’s third inhibitor title. And to Oliver’s point, how are you defining ‘creativity’?

  • Matthew Taylor

    Thanks David – I think you may be right. Oliver, Ian – the definition of creativity in this context us, of course, a big issue and one I am working through. At the moment I think of it as a set of rights, capabilities and dispositions which enable people to create the lives they choose. But I need to do some more thinking on this.

  • Oliver

    Still not sure I understand the definition. In fact no, I definitely don’t. And as I say, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. If I had my time again, though, I would try to earn a decent living instead.

    Sounds like what you’re talking about is people who are paid to think. Tiny slice of the population.

  • Ian Duffy

    Matthew, to take your line of enablers for creating lives of choice, there are more fundamental barriers for the majority of the population linked to income rather than the effects of individual organisations. Stretching the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy, I’d suggest that many people cannot even begin to think about the higher order effects you describe whilst they are still constrained by basic needs of income and work/life balance. Of course, you could argue that this is a consequence of institutional dysfunction at much greater scale…

  • Matthew Taylor

    Oliver, I wonder why the proportion of the employed population that is ‘paid to think’ is so low. Isn’t it the case with most jobs that people would perform better if they were encouraged to think about what they were doing and how they could do it better? The reason this happens so much less than it could or should are to do with sorting, splitting and subordinating. Ian, of course, I recognise you point and it is one I need to reflect in the speech. However the relationship between financial status and a sense of being about to create the life you choose is not direct. On the one hand, there are people who are ‘choosing’ to be poor as it goes with their life choices – students, some voluntarily self employed people (see recent RSA report) – on the other hand, some public resources (albeit fast declining) and the internet are enabling creative choices even for those who for whatever reason are materially disadvantaged.

  • Andrew Manson

    What I find interesting is how essential external agency is in allowing our institutions to control and contain the creative impulse. As a freelance producer I would get thrown at unsuspecting clients to take a requirement and come up with acceptable and hence saleable ‘creative’ treatment. My bosses would wheel me out like a babbling monkey for straight faced administrators to load up with requirements around a communication, a piece of training, a lesson or product.

    Over the course of a meeting I would free associate, scribble or sketch, as an idea formed. Said administrators would squirm and settle as the room coalesced around an apparently new combination of things. The idea would not necessarily come from me, but from the ‘loosening’ of the group required to enable and articulate it. This process could be as enjoyable as it was uncomfortable, as to be done well it meant naming the elephant; giving it shape and presence; sometimes a new vernacular. From this point on all would breathe normally again while conjuring well honed skills of sorting, splitting and subordinating.

  • Derek Halden

    I definitely agree that this is not a debate about creativity specifically but about nurturing capability and diversity which are needed for any system to thrive. Sorting, splitting and subordinating are sometimes organisationally needed as static blocks within wider dynamic systems.

  • Matthew Mezey

    Hi Matthew,

    I’m impressed you managed to boil the creativity-stifling characteristics of organisations down to 3.

    As I shared with you a few days ago, here are Ekvall’s characteristics of creative organisations:

    1. Challenge and involvement (the degree to which people are involved in daily operations, long term goals, and visions)
    2. Freedom (How free employees are to decide how to do their job; do they exhibit independence in their behaviours?).
    3. Idea time (the amount of time people can use – and do use – for elaborating new ideas)
    4. Trust and openness (Do employees feel safe speaking their minds and offering different points of view?)
    5. Dynamism (The eventfulness of life in the organization)
    6. Playfulness/humour (the spontaneity and ease displayed in the workplace)
    7. Debates (To what degree do people engage in lively debates about the issues)
    8. Risk-taking (The promptness of response to emerging opportunities and fear of failure; tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity exposed in the workplace)
    9. Idea support (the way new ideas are treated; are there resources to give new ideas a try?)

    Leonard and Swap (1999) – building on the work of Teresa Amabile – stress that a creative leader’s primary role is to design and maintain a supportive, safe psychological environment.

    To achieve this they suggest:

    1. A tolerance for risk taking
    2. Intelligent failures
    3. Interactive communication
    4. Promoting passion
    5. Autonomy
    6. Time for personal projects
    7. Optimism
    8. Encouraging serendipity, and
    9. A tolerance for paradoxes

    Woodman (1995) notes that “in general, adaptive organisational forms (e.g. matrix, networks, collateral or parallel structures) increase the odds for creativity. Bureaucratic, mechanistic, or rigid structures decrease the probability of organisational creativity.”

    This helps us build up a pretty clear picture of what a typical anti-creative organisation looks like.

    Drawing on ideas 3 and 6 (Idea time (the amount of time people can use – and do use – for elaborating new ideas); Time for personal projects) I wonder whether a version of Google’s ‘20% Time’ that frees engineers to work on personal projects they’re passionate about might prove a good thing to try out across RSA staff (we’ve already seen how ‘Randomised Coffee Trials’ have increased serendipity, connections and creativity across staff).

    Something like ‘RSA 5% Time’, or one place called it ‘Friday Afternoon Tasks’ perhaps – or around two hours a week when interested staff can work on some personal project they are passionate about, something that might fail… but could prove to be transformative! ;-)

    This great recent article in Stanford Social Innovation Review explained how we need to support the rise of emergent strategy (vs the traditional predictive strategy approach of logic models, theory of change etc):

    It becomes – for me – ever more clear that any creative future requires that we learn to use the emergent and adaptive approaches, rather than always the linear, mechanical, top-down and expert-driven.

    For the authors of that article, its characteristics are things like:
    – co-creating strategy
    – working positive and negative attractors
    – improving system fitness

    If it all sounds a bit new-fangled, I guess that’s because it is.

    To move to an emergent strategy approach, everything has to change in an organisation: strategy-creation, structure, evaluation of impact, leadership development, culture…

    Hopefully, as more people move towards Prof Robert Kegan’s ‘Self-transforming’ way of knowing, these emergence/complexity models start to make sense, and the changes they require of us…

    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Online Community Manager)

  • Shelagh young

    Perhaps you missed out “normalising” and you might even continue with alliteration and call it “standardising”. Summed up by “This is how we do it here.” Consciously or unconsciously conforming to organisational norms is very common. Someone mentioned trust in their comment. Newbies want to build trust so behaving or thinking outside the norm is an emotional and possibly career risk. Trust is also key. I think I want all people I work with to exercise creativity but worry or get resentful when it appears to undermine needed work getting done. When I worked in journalism the external pressure of a real publication getting off to print seemed to help contain task drift. In other field I have not found it so easy to maintain enough sense of shared responsibility for deadlines.

  • Josh W

    I think that’s reasonably accurate.

    Underneath the majority of those barriers to creativity, it seems to me, are lack of alignment of direction, or to be more specific, lack of agreement on the nature of the problem to be solved.

    There’s a kind of moral tiredness that can build up in any professional role, a kind of collective self-justification and accommodation of the limits of your role, that can flow into other areas. That is why contrasts must be made between citizens and police, because police have got used to the compromises they make which can make things they would find unacceptably harsh the only practical option. Long term reservations can be held on to until their force is dulled. This shifts the emphasis for problem solving.

    There’s a kind of moral ambition that creates whistle-blowers, or creates opportunities for systemic improvements, which is where someone decides that the problem is not merely within their job, but within the context in which their job is done. Chelsea Manning’s confession was that she had breached discipline in her role, by stepping beyond her position to make moral judgements as a citizen on how the war of that time period was being waged. She had information in her role as an intelligence officer that allowed her to make strategic analyses that she was forbidden from making within that role, but which as a citizen she could have an opinion on.

    The problem is that every adjustment of a system of human beings is political, in the sense that it can potentially overturn the relationships of power within an organisation. A number of people could decide that one of their colleagues would make a better manager of the company than it’s owner, and they could be right, perhaps they have a more appropriate combination of experience and personality traits, but that role is not elected.

    I would say that this model would suggest that creativity is allowed to those who already have a position of privilege guaranteed by the current system, such that their professional accommodations will encourage them to be creative, but not too revolutionary. They will solve problems within terms that maintain the structure of who is manager or owner, because to be more creative could be in a sense self destructive.

    So in my book, this category could be called self-justifying, both from the organisational equivalent of ego-protection, and the cognitive side of discipline.

    I think that the consideration of purposive vs substantive goals is slightly different to this; organisations tend to adapt to the means available to them, becoming more and more dominated by their own internal affects. This is a consequence on the above but has it’s own different properties; people protect procedures with ties to relationships, and those procedures then have their own emergent purposive effects, directing the organisation to certain outcomes. To keep on a military intelligence theme, GCHQ has an implicit hunger for information, regardless of the purposes it might serve, because all of their procedures are based on absorbing as large a spread of information as possible.

    But there’s another side to this as well, sometimes creative solutions are avoided because they make people’s jobs harder, or reduce their hours either in the short or long term. People on building sites will happily fill in holes and dig them out again multiple times if it means they get paid for a few extra hours of easy work on a contract, whereas other suggestions to improve safety or quality will be held back because any extra effort they put forward to implement them will be included in their existing pay. It’s not just about people at the top.

    It could be said that perhaps solutions that don’t consider workload or power relationships are not that creative, but generally, creative problem solving in any specific domain is at risk from becoming a tool for negotiation of more general power relationships.

    And that is why I believe sorting is done; if hierarchy precedes meritocracy, then the rational for meritocracy is to perpetuate the hierarchy by getting more intelligent people working in those roles that allow creativity, and conversely, by their presence in those roles, justify the importance of having those roles be the creative ones. There are non-heirarchical reasons for tracking qualifications and assigning responsibilities obviously, but I’m talking meritocracy in the sense of people “rising to the top”, which usually means higher management.

    But in the case of organisations like the NHS, it might well be that the support functions of higher management are much less demanding than those roles requiring direct contact, and it might make more sense to have promotion of intelligent or competent people be about becoming specialists or consultants and staying relatively close to the front line.

    Particularly bonus-driven cultures can give a similar framework of “promotion while staying still”, and my suspicion is that part of unlocking creativity in organisations is about either finding ways to decouple people’s security and income from the processes they are trying- so that the inequality that exists within the organisation is not inherently based on hierarchical position – or by accounting for all costs of plans in an open way, so that it is obvious if people are pushing risks off and is compensated for.

    I suppose you could pull my interpretation down into the following ideas:

    Creativity is inhibited by the nature of negotiation itself, by the practical constraints or drives of existing programs, by justifying inequality or security, and by professional discipline and it’s attendant limits for criticism.

    This leaves missing why discipline and the constraints of existing programs exist, or indeed why people negotiate, and I think they all represent the problem of how to incorporate creativity and improvisation within consistent larger scale action, which relates to the still unsolved problem of how to combine layered solutions to problems without simply having everyone consider the affects on everyone and act in their interests.

  • Barbara Schaefer

    Dear Matthew Taylor,
    it was good to meet you at the East Midlands RSA Conference earlier this month – and I have now read your lecture in full. Lots to comment!
    Just as a taster, I paste here an extract from my mission statement:

    “In today’s world of supercomplexity the individual may find to be under great responsibility without being able to have much influence on the complex developments affecting us all. Learning to live with this tension and use it for improvement can be helped by tapping into sources of self-appropriation as often achieved by survivors of disasters. When brought to awareness, these can be used to cope better and even change situations.”

    In preparing my application to become a FRSA, I have reflected on the triad of political lectures that appear as framing my life in the UK:
    Tony Giddens on Globalisation 1999,
    David Held, ca. 2002, guest lecture in Aberystwyth on local democracy as balancing globalisation, and now yours on Creativity!

    Kind regards and best wishes,
    Barbara Schaefer MA, Nottingham

  • Josh W

    Haven’t yet read the lecture, but I felt I left it on too ominous a note in the previous comment. I suggested that combining different forms of creativity together is a fundamental problem, and I think that’s true, but I wouldn’t say that no success has been found. So I’ll go into some ideas I have about where I think people find partial success in practice:

    Part of the problem is that the actual creative group contains a fairly small number of real stakeholders, those who are possible to contact on a frequent basis. In the churn of creativity the nature of the problem can quickly shift, and you need to keep re-coding people’s needs and objectives in a changing description framework.

    In that situation, stakeholders outside of the core group will very quickly flatten into structural constraints. Things “other people” want from us, and I’ve seen four main reactions to this:

    Criminal – Illusionary
    Psychoanalytical – Paternalist
    Literal-ist – Disappointing
    Representative – Arrogant

    The first category focuses on superficial matters, and tends to be criminal; “so long as you look like you’re considering people’s needs, no problem.”

    This is about reducing other people’s requirements into surface details that are produced correctly, and it can be about just matching your outer skin of your building to planning regulations, or it can be about making your project superficially look normal to your boss, while you experiment under the hood doing more unusual things.

    The problem here is philosophical, in that it assumes that all these other stakeholders want is symbolic or representational, that your work will have no substantial effect on them. To the extent this is true, it can be ethical, but it usually involves a lot of denial.

    The next one is the psychoanalytical approach, where instead of talking to people, you try to build a model of what they really want, deeper than what they have expressed to you. This is the approach taken frequently by marketing or politics, where projects are embarked on “for the good of the customer”, with an internal model of needs or wants guiding development. The problem here is a kind of paternalistic attitude, that your design is naturally so well suited to the cognitive structure and needs of your customers that once they get used to it, they will appreciate it for what it is. This can be driven by a lot of psychological modelling of quite abstract properties, but it excludes the customer from being able to define things at the strategic level. They have the choice whether or not to buy in of course, to commit to this paternal relationship, but it is still a choice of benevolent dictators. The distinction between paternalistic marketing/design groups and paternalist political parties is actually becoming very blurred in the case of the big network companies like amazon, google or facebook, as they start to become owners and designers of a social space more than single point service providers.

    The literalist model is about transferring customer constraints into feature lists or static specifications, and then literally fulfilling them via unexpected means. This model actually works very well in a lot of hard engineering contexts, but in situations where customers do not transfer their requirements into specifications correctly, or where the design team does it for them, it can be very easy when designing to give them exactly what they asked for, but not what they actually want.

    Then finally you have the representative model, but I’m not talking about just bringing someone in to the team to represent the needs of outside groups, as this just means you’ve added an extra member to the team, with the same problem of how you represent someone day to day. Instead I’m talking about having people who stand in for the interests of the other stakeholders, and amplify them, so that they reach a level of demand that naturally incorporates the demands of those they represent. So having someone who is very strong on safety within the organisation can mean that you will end up making your car safer than any given customer needs. The problem is that when you tie all of these ambitions together, you can end up with a very dynamic but demanding group, and for those few stakeholders whose needs do diverge from this framework, the group can seem utterly uncompromising, because they are spending so much time dealing with their internal challenges.

    So those are four basic methods for doing without design feedback, in practice, they are complimented by negotiation, because as you start asking for people’s opinions on stuff, sending information back and forth, although it may be designed as a simply assumption-checking feedback, in generally draws in the dynamics of pushing work from one side to another.

    I don’t think this is inherent, because various characteristics of negotiation classically stuff like “this is all on stop till you give us an answer” etc. could presumably get weakened by certain kinds of design, and I can imagine a lot of distributed creative processes that could fork or reform in response to negotiation pressures, similar to open source projects, especially on creative projects that don’t have weight or inertia to them, in a physical or social sense, but generally this tends to be the challenge that I see:

    Small creative groups seek to accommodate outside stakeholders by simplifying their interests, then when trying to refill those simplifications with information, the nature of the relationships between the creative group and their surroundings becomes very significant, which can often lead to the inherent flaws of their simplification problems not being addressed, as the relationship issues and divisions of power become more important: Different creative teams can be constantly adapting to the information they are getting from each other, and shifting that balance of adaption back and forth can become equally important to making the adaptions themselves.

    Anyway, as I’ve elaborated it here, this is basically still an idea about what can go wrong in making broader creative solutions out of smaller ones, but hopefully I’ve transformed something that would normally be considered politics, in a generic sense, into something a bit more functional. I still don’t think we have easy solutions, but I think part of it is about trying to create recursively adaptive creative groups, where some effort is put into avoiding arms races of forcing adaption on other parties, and in dealing directly with the natural results of simplification that come from differentiated levels of engagement in the creative conversation across the different clusters.

  • matthew taylor

    This is such a fascinating thread I can’t really do it justice. Suffice to say that if – as I hope – I get the chance to elaborate on the speech I will certainly draw on some of these great thoughts. Josh thanks for giving it so much time. Barbara, thanks for putting me in such esteemed company !