Sorting, splitting, subordinating - RSA

Sorting, splitting, subordinating


  • Education
  • Creativity

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 One of these barriers comprises the dead hand of outdated institutions.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.....



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