Creating space

Stefan Stern
11 March 2014

13 March 2014 | Stefan Stern

Here are some of the most depressing phrases you can ever hear at work. “It’s time for your annual appraisal – do you have a free hour early next week?” “We’re going for a team building away-day next month. It’s paintballing.”

“We’re going to rearrange our seating. You’ll find a box by your desk. Please mark your name clearly on it. On Monday there will be a new floor plan showing you where your new desk is.” And…

“We’ve been worried that we’re not being creative enough. So we’re bringing in a team to run a creativity workshop next month.”

Honestly – you’re under enough pressure, trying to hit targets and deadlines within budgets, and now they want you to be creative as well! How about paying me more if you want extra creativity, you might be tempted to ask. Under your breath.

But they may be doing you a favour. For what is the great theme of our times? It is automation – the rise of the machines. Computers (or “robots”) are getting cleverer and quicker. They can replace human beings in an ever larger number of situations.

But what computers cannot do – may never do – is be creative. They do not have a sense of humour. They cannot ‘think outside the box’. And how could they? They are boxes.

Creativity need not be scary. You don’t 
have to wear a black polo neck jumper.

It may simply mean taking a deep breath and making a few suggestions that ordinarily you’d be too nervous to offer. A brief but telling burst of creativity might just save (and make) your career.


You don’t have to be a sports fan to realise that without the right group, the work may not get done. It’s not a question of everybody being able to do everything. The mix of people, skills and experience needs to be complementary.

That is why arguments about ‘diversity’ are not an exercise in so-called ‘political correctness’. They are actually about setting your team up to succeed.

Managers sometimes forget that the output from a team is what matters, not just the contribution from a few stars. So when you are redesigning a business unit or operation, don’t get too hung up on one or two senior players. The goal is to achieve something collectively. As the business guru John Garnett used to say: “There’ll always be washing up.” You could hire the greatest chefs in the world, but if no-one does the washing up your restaurant will be closed down by the environmental health people.

Skills development must always be seen in the context of what a team is trying to deliver. Don’t just ask: “Have we got the right people?” Ask also: “Can we achieve what we want together?”

When projects fail it is tempting to point at one or two people and say they have let you down. But it is the team that counts.

So fill in all the gaps, wherever they are, to create your magic circle.

☛ Stefan Stern is visiting professor of management practice at Cass Business School

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