The Enabling Organization

The Giant Sequoia, as its name suggests, is the largest tree on earth. It can rise to the height of 100 meters and grow to a diameter of more than 10 meters. You cannot stay indifferent when you see such a giant wonder, but this wonder becomes magic when you consider how it starts.

The seeds of the Giant Sequoia tree are so tiny that you can hold hundreds of them in your hand. Each seed is less than 1cm long, but it has the potential to grow and become the tallest living thing on earth. This miracle doesn’t just happen, of course. Like any other seed, the Giant Sequoia needs the right conditions to start this long process of growing and becoming a tree. The right amount of water, suitable soil, minerals, fertilizers, adequate sunlight, the right temperature and humidity are all essential ingredients in the ideal setup for the Giant Sequoia to grow.

Likewise, creative ideas, no matter how groundbreaking, start their lives as small seeds. Each and every one of us already has the seeds of Creativity within them. To grow and realize the potential embedded in these seeds, we need certain conditions. We need Experiences, and we need to be Observant. We need to Wonder, and we need to develop the ability to turn what we Wonder about into harmonious Fusions. We have to turn these harmonies into a vision of a future, reshaped reality. We have to Imagine. All these capabilities are already part of us. From them, we can grow ideas as impressive as the Giant Sequoia. But to enable this growth, both humans and the Giant Sequoia need something beyond all these ingredients.

To grow, we need space.

Like almost all plants, the Giant Sequoia will not reach its full potential without space. If we don’t provide the growing tree the space it needs, its roots will not evolve and extract what they need from the soil. Space is not an ingredient per se. It is an enabling condition without which growth will almost always be limited.

And growing creatively is no different.

Space to Grow

We are all born with The Creativity Operating System programmed in our brain. It is an inherent part of how we are designed to see the world, experience it, and reshape it. Experience, Observe, Wonder, Fuse, and Imagine are the five functions that take part in any creative act. This entire Operating System is first and foremost internal: it is part of us. If we wish to lead a creative life and generate creative ideas, we must master these functions and apply them in everything we do. But this is not enough. Just like the setup required for the Giant Sequoia to realize its potential, for our Creativity to grow, we also need space.

The need for space is weaved throughout The Creativity Operating System model and its Core Practices. From Taking Detours to Slowing Down, from Creating Space for Fusions to Pausing to Imagine, from Finding Personal Value to Setting Fuzzy Goals — space creates the playground for our creative journey. Without space, Creativity is possible, but it will always be limited and will seldom realize its potential. The less room you have to play, your insights and actions will be more limited. It is more than just a constraint — when you have less room to maneuver, the road and the outcome are more predictable. The more predictable the result is, the less creative it is, by definition.

When you have more space, you have more opportunities to apply the Creativity Functions. Your Experiences become richer. You have more bandwidth to Observe. You have room to Wonder, play with Fusions, and Imagine different possibilities. In our personal domain, it is up to each of us to create and maintain that space. We generally chose how we spend our free time (or dead-time), who we hang out with, and what we wish to pay more attention to. Creating space in your personal life is not always trivial. Far from it. But it is eventually a matter of conscious decision. However, we generally have less control over what we do and how we do it when it comes to an organizational context. The organization has a significant role in shaping the space we have to grow in. Organizational leadership has a huge impact on enabling our growth by providing adequate space for it.

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Creating Space in Organizations

The most impactful thing you could do to make your organization more creative is to enable creative growth. It is not about grand investments, creating physical playgrounds, buying fancy tools, or painting the walls in bright colors. At the most basic level, all you have to do is to know when to step back to create the space for your team to grow. It is easier said than done, but many examples show that this is not only possible — it is desirable.

3M was probably the pioneer in being an enabler and creating the space for its employees to grow. The 15% Culture at 3M has famously generated commercial innovations like the Post-It notes, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Commercial success is not the declared goal of this culture and not how its contribution is articulated. Here is a short description from the 3M company website:

“For more than 70 years, 3M’s unique 15% Culture has encouraged employees to set aside a portion of their work time to proactively cultivate and pursue innovative ideas that excite them.

While coordinating with their manager to ensure day-to-day responsibilities are still executed, employees get the space to try something new and different, think creatively, and challenge the status quo.

Whether it’s experimenting with a new technology, forming a special interest group around a fresh idea, or finding a new way to run a process, our 15% Culture gives employees in all areas the license to innovate.”

When such a wonderful space is created (or, more accurately, enabled), anything can happen. An idea for a new innovative product might emerge, but no less critical, a new way of doing things within the organization might be formed. Creativity and Innovation are not limited to product development. That is why the 15% Culture applies to all employees and not just to research and product development roles. It is an excellent example of how letting go creates space, and space enables beautiful things to grow. It might be a cliché, but it is nevertheless true.

Setting time for personal projects as done in 3M and other companies is only one way of being an enabling organization. Companies like Spotify took a different approach. Spotify has created a culture (and the tools to support it) in which any team can come up with ideas for new features, develop them, and even deploy them on a limited scale to see if they get positive or negative feedback from users. While this may sound like a less dramatic approach than 3M’s, it is innovative and unorthodox in the context of product development. In many (if not most) companies, there is a very rigid path to approve new features that will eventually shape the product, let alone approve the investment of time to develop them and taking the risk of deploying them before analyzing their potential impact. It is an approach that creates space not just to innovate but also to take risks. It enables (and promotes) experimentation. And that is precisely the playground that ignites Creativity.

As extreme as these examples seem to be, they work. They rely on a solid organizational culture and high level of trust. But more than anything, they require some leap of faith — you need to genuinely give them a try for some time to see their benefit and return on investment. If that level of freedom is not possible in your current organizational climate, there are many smaller steps to enable Creativity and create the space for it to flourish. Many of the Core Practices in the c.os model (some of them listed above) are designed to define and make use of this space. When you replace concrete and rigid goals for your team with fuzzier goals, for example, you effectively create room for experimentation, exploration, and unexpected ideas. Such initiatives could be necessary steps toward a more radical change. But even if such a change is not currently planned, these steps are valuable as standalone actions.

Space is not a binary concept. It can evolve over time. Starting small can create value that will convince the leaders of the organization to enable even more room for Creativity. The best thing about being an enabling organization is that when you make space for people to grow, it will always be utilized.

Just like the Giant Sequoia, people want to grow.

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