There Is Creative Conflict And Then There Is Creating Conflict

Last Monday I wrote about how intrinsic motivation can often be more effective than external motivators like rewards and punishments, but suggested non-profit workers not allow people to use that finding to insist they will be more productive if they are poorly paid.

I fear I may need to reiterate that point having read the following in a recent Harvard Business Review piece, (my emphasis)

Consistent with these famous case studies, scientific research shows that creativity and innovation can be enhanced by reducing team harmony. For instance, a recent study of 100 product development teams found that two common disruptors of team harmony, namely diversity and task uncertainty, were positively associated with creative performance. Likewise, a review of theoretical and quantitative studies showed that teams are often more creative when they have fewer rather than more resources (for example, time, money, and people). Furthermore, teams that are able to engage in productive task conflict — expressing disagreements, negotiating between different views, and working under a certain amount of tension — tend to be more innovative.

Actually, I only call attention to that phrase as a segue to the major topic of the piece which is that too much harmony may inhibit creativity.  This doesn’t imply a laissez-faire approach to team management is the way to profitability.

Just as we don’t want people suggesting that under funding and under resourcing groups is for their own good, this passage shouldn’t be read to suggest that fomenting dissension or creating hostile work environments will increase innovation.

There are some suggestions for leaders in the piece about how to introduce a moderate amount of conflict and tension, but I want to focus on the section of the article that emphasizes the necessity to have a team composition which is able to process the tension to constructive ends.  Employing or introducing a degree of discord has to be deliberate and considered rather than randomly tossed out with the idea that uncertainty will get people’s blood pumping.

Make sure that the team has the right personality characteristics. While one size does not fit all, teams with higher aggregate levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness will be better equipped to manage diversity and conflict. Team members will be more likely to hold themselves accountable to agreements, will try to smooth over relationship conflicts, and will ensure that the task focus is not derailed by personal dramas.

Increase psychological safety. Psychological safety creates an atmosphere of participation and trust that allows members to actively engage in risky social behaviors such as disagreements and criticisms, as well as nondefensive and open responses to those risky behaviors. In a recent study, intragroup trust was found to be the best predictor of productive task conflict, without creating relationship or personal conflict.

Give the team a chance to settle. Sometimes there is no substitute for the passage of time. Teams that develop sufficient familiarity create both emotional connections and precedents that allow them to productively work through tensions. For example, a NASA study found that teams with a shared working history made half as many errors as newly formed teams. Loyalty is a powerful source of resilience, as religious groups, movements, and families have always known. And in the absence of a shared history, team members with similar values are more likely to put up with tension and turn task conflict into a positive outcome.

You are likely to recall situations in your own experience when you witnessed groups thriving under similar conditions where conflict and tension helped drive the effort rather than derailed it.  Artistic pursuits by their very nature revel in embracing challenges and solving problems.

But as the article suggests, while it might be self-perpetuating once established, this environment is one that needs to be monitored and maintained because it exists in a balance between unmotivated satisfaction and destructive conflict.   While you might be able to recall experiences where groups thrived in a tense environment, if you have worked in non-profit arts and culture long enough you are even more likely to recall toxic, resentment filled environments and/or organizational cultures which seemed paralyzed by avoiding any appearance of conflict.

Does Intrinsic Value Of Art Derive From Intrinsic Motivation to Create It?

Traveling a bit this week and will be occupied with trying to beat my nephews in squirt gun battles. As is my custom, I am reaching back to the archives for some bits of wisdom.

Back in 2009 I pointed to a TED talk by Dan Pink discussing how for most tasks facing companies today, extrinsic carrot and stick motivators are less useful than intrinsic motivators at yielding effective results.

As I wrote in my post back then:

He provides some interesting findings about motivation, namely that when it comes to performing creative tasks conditional rewards (if you complete X by Y, you will receive Z bonus) are not as effective as intrinsic rewards in obtaining results. The conditional rewards actually get in the way of creative thinking. This may explain why arts people are able to create in the absence of monetary reward.

I wouldn’t let this get around lest people insist that paying you more may rob you of your creativity.

He makes a link to our current financial difficulties saying that there is a disconnects between what science has known for over 40 years and what businesses does, which is essentially the carrot and stick approach.

Pink says the new operating model should be based on:
“Autonomy- Urge to Direct Our Own Lives
Mastery- Desire to get better and better at something that matters, and
Purpose- The Yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

Among the opportunities a non-profit arts and culture work environment affords is for autonomy, mastery and purpose as Pink defines them. There are times that people need to come together as a team, submitting themselves either to the authority of an individual or the will of the team, but what they bring to the table at such gatherings is often the result of intrinsic motivation.

In the context of my recent consideration about separating the intrinsic value value of art from its utilitarian value, I wonder if the intrinsic value of art may be heavily informed by the motivation in its creation.

Of course, this opens up a whole can of worms about the purity of the creative motivation the arts and culture community frequently becomes mired in.

Varied Advice & Insights On Creative Placemaking, Economic Impact

As a follow up to yesterday’s post on the Creative Placemaking conference I attended, I wanted to share some general thoughts and ideas I had picked up.

Regardless of whether the setting is urban, suburban or rural, there are a number of communities experiencing really difficult times. A number of panelists discussed the need to address the community trauma before you ever talk about economic stimulus. You can’t just walk in and position something as a solution to the problems in the community until those problems are aired and people have a sense that they can move forward from there. Otherwise the issues will likely continue to fester and undermine the foundation of what you are trying to accomplish.

When it comes to investment and grant making in rural communities, it probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that one of the factors contributing to the low level of investment is geographic remoteness. David Stocks of the Educational Foundation of America (which ironically is not involved in education) talked about how program officers will need to invest a lot more effort into bringing support to rural communities.

They might need to take a plane to a regional airport and then drive 2-3 hours before they reach a community. There is also the issue of trying to identify what organizations would make good anchor partners for the work they do.  There is a need for both funders and community organizations to work at expanding their relationship networks to increase the chances that their orbits will intersect.

Marie Mascherin who works for New Jersey Community Capital, characterized her organization primarily as a lender. She talked about how lenders viewed placemaking activities which was a perspective you rarely get. All the same, she warned those in attendance that her organization was atypical in that they got a lot more involved with the community and projects they were working on than most similar lending organizations.

John Davis who was involved with bringing vitality to both New York Mills, MN and Lanesboro, MN passed on a piece of advice he had received from a college professor – don’t make excuses, even about money, for not finding a creative solution. Basically, don’t let lack of money (or other things)  become default excuses about why things can’t be accomplished. In a rural setting where resources are scarce, you pretty much have to try harder to find creative solutions.

(Honestly, “work even harder and don’t make excuses,” wasn’t something I wanted to hear, but wasn’t exactly news.)

Davis also talked about an argument he made to a local government that was balking at renovating a building. He noted it would cost them $35,000 to demolish the building or they could invest $35,000 into renovating the building and have a more valuable property they could sell later if his project failed.

His project didn’t fail, but that concept dovetailed in an interesting way with a comment Ben Fink of Appalshop made about a prison project being proposed near Whitesburg, KY. He said that the $300,000,000 prison was being sold to the community as, at best, creating 300 new jobs. He noted that was $1,000,000 a job–compare that to how much benefit $1 investment in arts and culture has for a community.

It occurred to me that is something to look into and leverage proactively with governments and decision makers. Rather than waiting until it comes time to ask for funding to be renewed, when a discussion comes up about providing tax breaks or subsidies for companies, it might be useful to mention that $1 invested in creative placemaking/arts/culture/education in the community is more efficient.

While I am on the subject of economic activity, in one session I bluntly asked Jeremy Liu of PolicyLink about the veracity of economic impact claims being made by organizations and communities. He said if they are using analytic tools like those offered by Implan, the numbers are dependable.

In the past I have mentioned my concern with arts and culture organizations arguing for funding or policy changes citing the benefits of art and music on learning and test scores when such benefits are only weakly supported or have been debunked.

What has worried me is that decision and policy makers will learn about the lack of evidence for these claims and perhaps actively wield it against the arts community. By the same token, I have often wondered at the rigor behind claims of economic impact of creative activity in communities and feared what might result if they are debunked.¥

A few other tidbits people offered-

Don’t become hyperfocused on placemaking. Don’t value place or a project over the community. Even if you are in a group, no project is completed in isolation.

If you recall in the very beginning of my post yesterday I mentioned that I gained an appreciation and broader perspective on the different roles that contributed to a placemaking project from governments to funding/loan group to community members to the people executing the work, placemaking is a function of many entities working together.

I feel like I am citing him a lot in these last two posts, but I appreciated Ben Fink’s insights about establishing relationships with people in the community. He said the first real shared connection you will make with someone is rarely associated with the project you are trying to accomplish. As an example, your aim may be to solicit participation in a building renovation for a maker space but the initial basis of your relationship is a shared interest in 19th century steam engines.

He said that building community support and participation happened in the same way friendships develop. It is heavily dependent on the dynamics at the formation of the project. If participation is by invitation only, one person ends up being in charge. If you form a clique of interested parties, it becomes insular. But if the project begins with the intention of leaving the door open, interested people will start to gravitate toward the project as they see work happening.

¥- None of this compromises my assertion that while arts and cultural activity may generate economic activity, steady employment, positive social outcomes and quality of life, the none of this is a measure of the value of arts and culture.

Star Employees Don’t Automatically Become Star Managers

Last month in Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman wrote about how the most productive employees don’t make the best managers.

Of the seven qualities they had listed in a previous article as being important for a top producer, only one, collaboration, overlapped with the qualities found in good managers.  They note that most of the seven qualities of a top producer are focused on individual effectiveness whereas a manager needs to be outwardly focused.

The top qualities they list for good managers (the article expounds on each in more detail) are,

  • Being open to feedback and personal change. ..
  • Supporting others’ development. ..
  • Being open to innovation. …
  • Communicating well. …
  • Having good interpersonal skills…
  • Supporting organizational changes…

When we further analyzed our data, we found that many of the most productive individuals were significantly less effective on these skills. Let’s be clear, these were not negatively correlated with productivity; they just didn’t go hand in hand with being highly productive. Some highly productive individuals possessed these traits and behaviors, and having these traits didn’t diminish their productivity.

But this helps explain why some highly productive people go on to be very successful managers and why others don’t. While the best leaders are highly productive people, the most highly productive people don’t always gravitate toward leading others.

All this is important to know because often people who are most productive are promoted to managerial positions on the belief the person can bring out the same productivity in others. But they don’t always do well in that role because it requires a different skillset to achieve success.

Instead of promoting an effective producer and hoping they will learn managerial skills, Zenger and Folkman suggest cultivating those skills while people are still an individual contributor. They say like anything, developing good managerial qualities takes time and businesses often expect good results pretty quickly after a promotion. They note that organizations which are good at identifying and promoting successful managers have often been providing training and opportunities over time.

New managers tend to be overwhelmed with their new responsibilities and often rely on the skills that made them successful individual contributors, rather than the skills needed to manage others. The time to help high-potential individuals develop these skills is before you promote them, not after.

All of this is obviously good advice for non-profit arts organizations. Except that it can be easy to fall into thinking that with so much turnover due to low wages and long working hours, the work you do developing an employee’s skills is just going to benefit another business.

While this may be true in the short term, I submit it is worth considering that the lack of internal training and cultivation may be partially contributing to the perceived dearth of quality candidates to succeed executive leadership. If employees don’t feel there the organization is interested in them assuming a greater role, that is one more incentive to leave.

It may be the result of the small sample size available to me or a trending bias of boards of directors doing the hiring, but over the last few years it has seemed that executive positions of many arts non-profits are being assumed by people with backgrounds in health care or corporate world. This seems to especially be the case with arts organizations of significance like arts councils in mid to large cities or serving well-populated regions.

It has left me wondering if this is the result of a lack of qualified candidates from arts disciplines, or as I suggest, a bias of those doing the hiring.

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