On my bus ride into town this morning, I listened to another great TED Radio Hour rerun today on Creativity, especially the bit with Sir Ken Robinson on “Do schools kill creativity?” He had a lot of great quotes from the talk, and apparently there’s a whole web page. The one that I kept noodling on today was this:

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

It took me back to some earlier thinking I was doing on my situation in government service and struggles I’m having with our overall risk aversion. I was also mindful of a phrase that another great TED talk introduced – Sugata Mitra called it the “Bureaucratic Administrative Machine.”

I’ve been struggling in the last while working in my own team to convey an idea and build something new that’s really nothing more than a ripoff of something I encountered through a university collaborator on an NSF project I’m involved with. I’m just figuring out how to adapt the ideas that have already been exercised to my own current field of biogeography. I’ve been struggling mightily the last number of weeks because our development of the “big idea” has been delayed through some unfortunate circumstances, and all of my attempts to convey the somewhat abstract idea that I see perfectly clearly in my own mind all seem to fall completely flat. So, is it my lack of creativity in coming up with a good communication mechanism or my team’s lack of creativity in being able to also see this idea while it’s still in an abstract conceptual stage?

I don’t know if it’s really either one. Perhaps it’s simply that we think differently. There’s a whole lot of things in life that I’m really not good at. In the immortal words of Flogging Molly, I’ve definitely missed more than I’ve hit. But I’m coming to accept that the one thing I’m good at, cruising along at my 50,000 foot level, is connecting the dots quickly and intuitively across many disparate concepts to make up a whole that is more often than not, possible. It might not be realistic given the surrounding constraints, but it’s possible. So, perhaps there is some relatively unique strength in this area that I bring to our team, but I’m also pondering, from the TED talks today, what I can do  as a leader to reduce the barriers to creativity in my staff. Because I think, despite my recent failure in communicating ideas, that we have incredible potential to be an incredibly effective force.

I think there is something about all of the artificial, often arbitrary, and completely counterproductive barriers that we keep erecting within the Bureaucratic Administrative Machine that really stifles creativity, innovation, and invention. With all of the challenges in terminating federal employees and the safeguards in place to make sure we keep our jobs as long as we pretty much conform to the Machine, the federal government is essentially contracting with many of us for at least a 30-year stint. You’d think that would give both sides, the person and the organization, an incredible sense of freedom to get out and take some risks to do really creative and innovative things. From the research science side, that’s really in our mandate. Government research is supposed to take on the really risky questions that are too big or too far fetched to be palatable to industry.

In chatting about this with one of my folks today, she said (not in so many words) that all the rules and really just the busy work that we somehow decide is important is a real contributing factor to the quashing of creativity. I actually try to shield my team from as much of that as possible; figuring that the buck ought to stop with me for most of the crap instead of having it continue rolling downhill. But I’m wondering about other things that I might possibly do to help bring about a work environment that lets creativity flow like a faucet turning on.  How can I give folks a sense of freedom to take risks and big, bold steps that will inevitably lead to failures and stubbed toes but may also lead to really innovative ways of thinking and new discoveries in our field? How can I best reward risk taking in whatever small sphere of influence I have? How can I celebrate the failures along with the successes in ways that aren’t contrived or false? How do I do all that within a larger environment of much of the rest of the organization that seems way more concerned with the appearance of doing good than with its substance? (Where, to be blunt and a little crass, blowing smoke up someone’s ass is rewarded as long as the smoke is sweet smelling.)

So, I don’t know the answers to all these questions yet, but I’m feeling a bit more inspired today than I was yesterday to pursue the questions. The powers that be, in their infinite wisdom, combined with my own propensity to fall somewhat haphazardly into various interesting jobs have entrusted me with a certain budget and a certain group of talented and eclectic staff and university collaborators to figure out how best to inform the nation on the status of biodiversity and the changes that are likely coming down the road. I think we’re coming up with some really cool ideas on how to do that, many of which are way beyond our current capacity to pull off, but I think we can figure it out anyway. I think we have a lot of the necessary ingredients, and I’m working hard at hiring a couple more of those. If we can just figure out how best to turn up the creativity meter a bit more, I’m confident we can make a real difference in informing important decisions our nation needs to make about our resources. We’re certainly going to need a lot of original thinking to pull it off, and so I’m going to do what I can to make sure that we are perfectly willing to be wrong; because I think Sir Ken has it absolutely right.