Downsizing versus Creativity

Several of my friends are currently working in organisations undergoing severe reorganisation. When I say severe it can mean reorganisations that are dragged out over a long timespan, decisions are delayed and made without buy in, and in one case, a large proportion of the staff is unsure about their job. I can tell you from the stories of my friends that this is bad for motivation, and creativity. Now there is also research to support this.

through a post by William Pietri in the XP mailinglist I came across The 6 Myths Of Creativity By Bill Breen in Fast Company magazine. If you believe Creativity Comes From Creative Types or Time Pressure Fuels Creativity, I recommend you read this article. If you don’t believe it, and need proof, read it too :-) . Other myths: Money Is a Creativity Motivator, Fear Forces Breakthroughs, Competition Beats Collaboration and A Streamlined Organisation is a Creative Organisation.

Creativity suffers greatly during a downsizing. But it’s even worse than many of us realized. We studied a 6,000-person division in a global electronics company during the entire course of a 25% downsizing, which took an incredibly agonising 18 months. Every single one of the stimulants to creativity in the work environment went down significantly. Anticipation of the downsizing was even worse than the downsizing itself — people’s fear of the unknown led them to basically disengage from the work. More troubling was the fact that even five months after the downsizing, creativity was still down significantly.

In one organisation, middle management is unsure what is going to happen, so they try to shape up their department so it looks as good as possible. They try to stimulate creativity by fear (e.g. ‘if we don’t do such-and-such we will look bad in the review, and our department – i.e. your job – won’t make it’), they put on pressure and try to bypass the formal planning process.

This might work for a weak or two, but over a longer period, quality of the software developed and systems running in this department is decreasing ever so slightly – making it more and more likely users will start to complain, and make the department look bad in the review. With all the time-pressure and task-switching the team is more likely to make errors, because they have less time to communicate with one another, and stop the line to identify and solve root causes behind problems. Mmmm. sounds like a Diagram of Effects in the making. If you happen to have one about this problem lying around, please let me know!

On a related note, Nynke Fokma has just made a Diagram Of Effects of short and long term effects of Cooperation versus Competition based on the Prisoners Dillemma. showing that in some cases (for two parties), competition might seem to benefit one party, but in the end each can only gain by collaborating. One thing that seems obvious to me, is that both parties spend a lot of time computing trust. Time they might better spend in coming up with a creative solution…

When reorganisations last too long and people are uncertain, I see competion for jobs not only between departments, but also between individuals. The backstabbing, lying and manouvering is not pretty. That might explain why it takes so long after a reorganisation for creativity to return – people simply don’t trust their coworkers anymore. To paraphrase a Dutch anti-alcoholism ad:

Een reorganisatie maakt meer kapot dan je lief is..

(rough translation: A reorganisation wrecks more than you’d like)


Comments are closed.