In a sixth form physics class, each student was provided with a mini-barometer by the teacher. “I want you to find out the height of the school’s clock tower”, said the teacher. Two minutes later Jack returned, and announced to the teacher the height of the tower. “Fantastic”, said the teacher. “That’s spot on. Tell me how you did it”
So Jack had to attend detention, where the physics teacher set Jack an assignment. “I want you to write an essay explaining how you can measure the height of the tower using a barometer.”
So Jack worked away, and 20 minutes later handed in a 4-page essay to the teacher, which (in summary) said:
“You can measure the height of the school tower using the barometer in any of the following ways:
• Erect a scaffolding alongside the tower. Then walk up the side of the tower, using the length of the barometer as a ruler. Given you know the length of the barometer, you can work out the height of the tower.
• Get a very accurate watch. Go to the top of the tower; drop the barometer over the side, and time its descent. From that you can calculate the height of the tower.
• Wait for a sunny day. Hold the barometer upright on the field, and measure the length of the shadow it creates. Now go and measure the shadow created by the tower……
There are two key stories here. The first is about being clear about what you want. The initial brief from the teacher was ‘to find the height of the tower’. The assumption was that the students had to use the barometer to do it. But that’s not what the teacher said.
The moral of this part of the story is: be clear about what you want.
The second, more important story, is to do with creativity. Jack, clearly out of devilment, found several creative ways of answering the (clearer) brief. And was punished for it. Do we have cultures that reward conformity, and punish non-conformity – whether it is worthwhile or not? If someone in your organisation acted like Jack, would he be valued or not?
There’s another point here. If creative non-conformists and mavericks exist, is it possible that they are excluded from positions of power and influence, because – like Jack – they don’t play by the rules and expectations. If there’s any truth in this, then our more creative people might have less conventionally successful educations (or none at all), and therefore might be in the lower reaches of the hierarchy, or even outside of formal organisational life altogether. And if this is true, what does this say about our organisation’s ability to be innovative and creative – if the more formal and senior positions are held by conformists – and if the creatives are often outside the system altogether?
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