Judge not the free flow of ideas

11th November 2005 at 00:00
I have before me a booklet, published by a local authority's school effectiveness service. It is entitled "Planning for Spontaneous Play".

OK, it's a cheap shot. In school, everything has to be planned for - even things that are unplanned. Who wants an Ofsted report that says, "This is a very good school which would have been judged excellent had the spontaneous play been better organised. Furthermore, the improvised drama showed every sign of being made up on the spot."

The serious point is that there is a real problem about wanting your people to be innovative and creative if at the same time you want them to adhere to a tight framework. And it gets worse, of course, if you follow up by sitting at the back of the room with a checklist. After all, if you're so pressured by standards that you pay regular worried visits to classrooms, you can't be surprised if what you see isa series of play-it-safe three-part lessons.

One head I spoke to - a recent appointment with a brief as a new broom - had spent a long time going from class to class with a clipboard. At the end, she was depressed by the sameness of it all, and the potentially stultifying effect on pupils. Then she realised that the problem lay with the visits themselves, which were seen as threatening. In that case, why would anyone do a risky role-play with lots of moving around and shouting when your mate over at Himmler High can email you a foolproof sit-down-and-shut-up worksheet?

This is a real leadership challenge. A few years ago, it inspired an interesting experiment at a management college in Georgia, US, in which students were given an in-tray task with memos calling for solutions to a range of difficult human-resource problems.

Half were told that they would be rigorously questioned and judged afterwards by experienced experts in the field. The other half would be able to discuss their answers with the same experts, sharing ideas in a spirit of mutual learning.

Well, you know the answer already. It is summed up by the professor who ran the exercise.

"Nothing dampens the creative spark more than judgemental critiques of innovative efforts," she writes.

Releasing creativity at any level - really letting people fly - is not easy. Indeed, it takes a steadier nerve than most of us have ever had. But I'd bet that the really successful leaders are the ones who've found a way of doing it.

"Management Mistakes Squelch Employee Innovation"http:sloanreview.mit.edusmrissue2001summer1b

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