The Paradox of Control and Creativity in Organizations

One of the seminal texts of Human Systems Change is The Social Psychology of Organizations by Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn published in 1966 and again in 1978. In short, the book is about Open Systems Theory, which says organizations are open to being affected by their external environments and that the character of every organization is continually in a state of flux. In the sixties when the book was published, this was a fairly revolutionary idea but is taken as a given in organizational literature today.

In class, we discussed the idea that to some extent, all organizations in one way or another are in the business of controlling people’s behavior. Maybe the word “control” isn’t the best. This book was published in 1978, after all, and its language is a little outdated. But the idea remains true: every organization has to ensure people do what they are supposed to do, whatever that is. Think about it: even asking people to show up for work or check emails is an attempt to influence the behavior of employees. But humans are not robots and we (especially Americans) frown on the idea of being controlled by anyone to do anything. At the end of the day, however, that’s what organizations do.

Katz and Kahn write that “every organization faces the task of somehow reducing the variability, instability, and unpredictability of individual human acts” (p. 296). This is where the “control” or influence comes in.

But wait, what about innovation and creativity? Creativity and innovation are generated by fostering the very thing organizations are trying to prevent, i.e. variability, instability, and unpredictability! If you were to look up the ingredients for creativity in the Recipe Book of Geniuses (not a real book), those three words would be at the top of the list! Still, you have companies like Google and Apple trying to structure (or “control”) their work environments to promote creativity.

The paradox emerges.

At the end of the day, organizations are trying to maximize resources, including human resources. Creativity and innovation are scarce resources and the most creative companies are emerging as hugely successful. So, what can organizations do? Should they just throw up their hands and give up in the face of this paradox? Of course not. It also doesn’t work to say, “Okay everyone, from 3:00-5:00 today it’s creativity time!”

Organizations must paradoxically control that which cannot be controlled. They must create spaces for variability, instability, and unpredictability to run wild. How to do this exactly is a question for another time.

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