Yoga May Be the Perfect Example of How Structure Can Breed Creativity at Work
Opportunities to be creative present themselves in curious and sometimes unexpected ways. I stumbled into an opportunity to be creative during a particularly tricky yoga class and the experience got me thinking about creativity at work.
In a self-declared rut, I decided that some exercise would serve me well. I love yoga, but at this juncture I have been out of the game for more than a year and am sporting a wrist guard. Given my recent hiatus and apparent wrist injury, the teacher raised her eyebrows at me with a look that said both “Are you sure you should be in here?” and “I’m proud of you for showing up.” Yoga is special in that there are many different forms of the practice with prescribed sequences comprised of an array of poses, where each pose has many modifications in order to be inclusive and accessible. Over thousands of years practitioners have found new and different places to go within the same position, a form of creativity that still persists within the community of practice.
How is this relevant to creativity at work? Many, if not most work activities contain varying elements of structure. But as with a yoga class, it is within this structured space that individuals can experiment, play, and discover the very best version of their actions. While structure can foster a sense of constraint, it can also have liberating properties which are often overlooked. The overall structure of the yoga class gave me support, enabling me to focus on what mattered most within that space. But it also created room for a certain degree of flexibility which allowed me to achieve my desired outcomes despite my wrist predicament.
This breed of creativity, referred to as recombinant creativity or innovation, is a result of building on the foundations that others have already provided and adapting based on task-demands and the environment. Work will always need to be done and there will most likely be some type of structure and precedent to support it. By acknowledging that structure can foster creative ways in which to accomplish work, we enhance our capacity to create positive change.
When we extend this idea beyond individual discretion and think about the organization or system, it becomes even more powerful. Minimal specifications within a system provide individuals the freedom and autonomy to self-organize and learn based on that which is most important, rather than being limited by the status quo. Yoga demonstrates these minimal specifications through its basic poses, strong traditions, and underlying belief systems that remain open enough to allow anyone to participate without strict adherence to a given position.
Within a working context, an individual may experience structure through basic rules, behavioral norms, policy, and organizational culture. But when designs are open and inclusive, anyone within the system can offer a creative solution without being hindered by hierarchies or bottlenecked reporting mechanisms. In a system with the right amount of structure, idea generation is not stifled by chains of command or bureaucratic reporting.
Imagine if every time you took a yoga class you had to raise your hand, grab the teacher’s attention, have a sidebar conversation, and convince the instructor about your modification before you attempted it. By the time you got approval to modify, the opportunity to create benefit would already have passed. In a world inundated by uncertainty and technological innovation, organizations constantly face fleeting moments to seize opportunities (Teece, 2007). The right amount of structure can set the stage for people to recognize and act upon these moments before they are gone.
The managerial implications for this concept are vast. Managers must foster creativity amongst their employees and communicate the ways in which structure can actually benefit the creative process, rather than being strictly a means of control. Research has shown that management’s greatest challenges include reducing fear and building trust, reinventing means of control, and expanding the scope of employee autonomy (Hamel, 2009). By understanding and communicating the limitations of structure overdone and the benefits of structure used well, managers can tackle all three of these challenges at once. Finding the balance between structure and autonomy in both management philosophies and organizational design is imperative to fostering an individual’s creativity at work and innovation within the organization.
We are all familiar with the feeling of imposition by structure in our lives. Taking a different perspective about the role of structure as supportive versus restrictive can surprisingly enable the creative process. At the same time, we must be mindful of how structure is imposed in order to foster systems that are generative, especially in the midst of change. Although this may seem contradictory at first glance, when we acknowledge inherent tensions within any system or organization, we can more adeptly capitalize on the opportunities to create and innovate.
Hamel, G. (2009). Moon shots for management. Harvard business review, 87(2), 91-98.
O’Reilly III, C. A., & Tushman, M. L. (2008). Ambidexterity as a dynamic capability: Resolving the innovator's dilemma. Research in organizational behavior, 28, 185-206.
Teece, D. J. (2007). Explicating dynamic capabilities: The nature and microfoundations of (sustainable) enterprise performance. Strategic Management Journal, 28(13), 1319-1350. doi: 10.1002/smj.640
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