Creativity vs. Rule Breaking

Creative people whose minds are focused on innovation can be seen as troublemakers in an environment such as a workplace that typically is built on rules.

Creativity isn’t always pretty. “Creative” types—or those who may be recognized as creative later in life—often bear a “problem child” label when growing up. I was an avid school-skipper as a young teenager, and didn’t feel the need to pay attention when I did bother to show up. In corporations, such “creatives” may require patience before rewards can be reaped from their talents.

I found a blog from Oxford University Press, by Feirong Yuan, that reveals the sometimes-unpleasing ways a creative personality first emerges in a workplace. For example, Yuan writes that “circumventing rules to meet a business need” could be a sign you have a creative person in your midst: “The commonly understood type of employee creativity is carried out within the parameters of organizational rules. In contrast, using original ways to circumvent rules is using creativity to stretch these parameters. A common example will be an employee who circumvents red tape in a creative way in order to get his or her job done more efficiently,” writes Yuan.

Of course, an employee who circumvents rules, even for a good cause, is usually vulnerable to getting into trouble, rather than being rewarded for innovative thinking. If it were my company in which an employee went around the rules to create a great product or service, or better meet the needs of a customer, I would question the rules. If you have rules that a talented, productive employee felt the need to bend, are the rules good—or necessary? An annual review of the rules that were broken over the previous year could be a way of giving deep thought and consideration to rules that may do more harm than good.

Sometimes even personal interest in circumventing a rule can be a good thing. It’s clearly not a good thing if the employee is circumventing a rule to do less work, such as by hiring an outsource provider without authorization. But what if the employee has a personal interest in making sure minorities in the organization progress? “Personal interests are not necessarily all self-serving. They also can involve helping a friend or a social group that an employee cares about. An example would be a minority employee using creative strategies to stretch rules to help other minority employees receive a fair chance for promotion,” Yuan writes.

Self-interest, which usually is discouraged in the workplace, also can come in handy if the employee develops a creative solution to a personal problem. The employee’s work on the solution starts from a place of self-interest, rather than company interest, but then what the employee discovers the solution can be applied to projects that do help the company.

That begs the question of whether employees should be given leeway to spend a limited amount of time each week on personal passion projects. Google famously does this, encouraging employees to take time to explore what they’re interested in, in addition to completing their assigned tasks. In the case of Google, this time—20 percent of the employee’s work time—is described as being in the interest of the company, but there is no requirement that the project must have an immediate benefit for the company. “The idea is pretty simple: It’s that you, a team, or a company—anyone, really—should divide your time working, so that at least 20 percent is spent exploring or working on projects that show no promise of paying immediate dividends but that might reveal big opportunities down the road,” Bill Murphy Jr. writes in Inc.

In essence, you want to encourage entrepreneurial thinking in your organization. That means understanding that entrepreneurs are often “troublesome” mavericks like Steve Jobs, who was famously fired from Apple, and then returned years later to create the company Apple is today. People whose minds are focused on innovation can be difficult in an environment such as a workplace that typically is built on rules. When rules are broken, there should be a review process that takes into consideration why the rule was broken and what was accomplished from breaking the rule. It may be that the risk the broken rule exposed the company, or other employees to, was small compared to the significant benefits to customers and profitability from what was created in the process.

What is your company’s process for reviewing internal rules and regulations? What is the review process when a rule has been broken? Are there times when a creative personality broke the rules for a good reason—to foster hugely beneficial new products and services, for example, or perhaps to accomplish another important goal?