Learning & Leading in the Uncomfortable Area Between Rules & Creativity

Courtesy of The Virtus Group, Inc.

The concepts of Rules and Creativity are diametrically related. Whenever an organization enacts a new "rule," a bit of creativity is killed. 

In my roles as a trainer and policy writer for a police department, I continually navigate and map out the treacherous chasm between what we've called Rules and Creativity environments and functions. For each and every situation, there is a tradeoff between restricting decisions via standardized procedures and empowering fresh solutions via open creativity

This spectrum is anchored at two ends: RULES and CREATIVITY. 

Rules are for known and predictable environments. Checklists and step-by-step processes ensure efficiency and consistency. (In policing, we have rigid rules governing: uniform standards; scheduling; criminal laws and statutes; evidence collection; traffic crash reports.)

Rules work well with absolute knowledge and highly-specialized technical skills. The static and straightforward nature of Rules environments calls for managers who maintain control and direction. Humans are developed through rigorous training, repetitive practice, and proficiency testing. It's mechanical and industrial.

Creativity is for the unpredictable. Because of the uncertainty of the future landscape, the actors cannot and must not be constrained to routine, by-the-numbers processes. Creative decision-makers synthesize solutions that are as fresh and unique as the problems and opportunities. It makes our people into craftsmen.

These artists also appreciate the effects of relationships and the power of human emotions. Creative situations need mentors who draw out values, character, and feelings from their people. Humans are developed through inspiring diversity, building the unimaginable, and encouraging to "break the mold" or "think outside the box."

The middle ground between these polar opposites is where we find the Adaptive realm - where decisions and solutions have loose parameters to match the varying levels of (un)predictability of the environment.

So how do we learn and lead in the gap that stretches between those extremes?

Leadership is more concrete than mentorship, but more relaxed than management. Leaders develop strategic plans that link the values and attitudes (The Why) with the methods and procedures (The How). Leaders flex - through an informed situational awareness and by shaping the future; not controlling it! 

Growth is vital to organizational health. Leaders must be dedicated to personal and organizational development. This involves not only formal educational routes, but cultural commitment to exploiting learning opportunities from both success and failures. 

Experience matters. Those who have functioned in adaptive environments have a leg up on their peers who have not. Experience helps in building patterns, relying on similar situations in the past, and forecasting potential failures and successes. It breeds speed and accuracy of decisions.

Failure is a chance for learning. Mistakes and errors are merely feedback on which to build wisdom. Experiential learning methods gives our people time to experiment with hypotheses and tweak unproven solutions. Resiliency is a major component for those who ultimately succeed in adaptive situations.

Concepts are our guides. Roughly, concepts are loose rules. They are open enough to allow for flexibility, but tight enough to keep the wacky outlier decisions to a minimum. Concepts need to have broad, generalized application to a wide array of circumstances. They should account for what might otherwise be (and improperly at that!) covered by a stack of different checklists or procedures.

Between Rules and Creativity is the Adaptive. It's in this area that many of our people operate. It's where rules don't match the problems, and where creativity is just too inconsistent and terrifying. The Adaptive world is where our thinkers explore within the established boundaries to solve complex and complicated situations. 

With the best of intentions, our leaders too often slip into management functions. They inadvertently kill creativity, by implementing more and more stringent rules and absolutes. But it's though this compliance with static rules that often plague our organizations; mere compliance keeps us from truly embracing our diversity and unique perspectives - to meet the demands and trust of our customers and our employees. 

In order to respond to the speed and chaos of change in the world, today's leaders must confront and become comfortable with unpredictability. It begins with learning how to place the various aspects of your organization on the Rules-Adaptive-Creativity spectrum. 


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr


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