Creativity & The Invisible Fence

Photo by Martin Gommel/FlickrThe invisible fence is a product that is designed to keep pets (like dogs & cats) within a set of boundaries without the need for building a physical barrier (e.g., a fence). The boundaries are set by a transmitted signal from either a buried wire or an above ground positioned object. The pets wear a collar which will give them a mild shock (*bzzzt*) when they approach the limits set by the owner. With a few days of training, the pet becomes familiar with their new limitations and will not venture past them.

I think creativity in the workplace is sometimes given the same treatment. But minus training about the collar and boundaries part.

This is not an objection to conditions or requirements to creativity in accomplishing tasks in the workplace; at face value, there is nothing wrong with applying such guidelines to an assignment given out by an employer. My objection is to the illusion of a free range and the enforcement of punishments without prior criteria.

What results are people who end up working as if they are boundaries when none exist; people who are unwilling to explore the range of options for fear of getting zapped; and people who would seek to avoid projects requiring creativity for the safety of rote and defined assignments. These are not the conducive conditions for innovation and progress.

Does the place where you work have an invisible fence for creativity? As a supervisor, what are you leaving out when telling an employee to be creative in the course of completing a task? As an employee, how do you learn of guidelines or criteria for your assignments?

I think everyone is creative when they are given the chance. It’s just that no one likes to get zapped. Not even our cats and dogs.


(I like writing these Seth Godin-esque posts, even if they don’t reach to his level of mastery. He has the uncanny ability to capture big moments or thoughts in small blog posts. I hope I did that here.)

4 thoughts on “Creativity & The Invisible Fence

  1. You are so right, Andy. I’m afraid that the workplace you describe here is probably more common than you think and so many people, as a result, are stifled in their jobs. One could say, “then you should go work somewhere else,” but finding that place where there isn’t some amount of what you describe can be a challenge.

  2. Wow! That’s a beautiful post and heartbreakingly accurate. I have definitely been in jobs like this where they would tell me to be open and creative but would totally smash any idea that didn’t confine itself to some unspoken but premeditated ideal. After the first couple smashes, I would do my projects exactly like everyone else.

  3. I am both a creative type and a manager, and I believe that creativity and structure need to co-exist. This doesn’t mean that structure should restrict the creativity – just shape it. Even great artists must conform their work to the canvas in front of them. Instead of creating an environment where the conversation is limited to “Can I do this? Yes/No” discussions, we should come together to determine what we want to achieve, how we can we achieve it, and what are we will are willing to expend/risk for the project.

    We need creative thinking to help realize new and better ways of serving our public in these times of change. Organizations need to listen to those within their ranks that are the idea generators. Creative thinkers need to remember that there are no bad ideas, just an idea that might need to be presented a different way or at a different time. Persevering is always more successful than giving up.

    Creativity is a desired trait in employees. How do we hire and cultivate creative thinkers? An idea worth brainstorming, I’d say…

  4. We have such a drawn-out and intensive process to get even the most minor project started (i.e. proposals must got through a gambit of committees, round tables, supervisors, and departments) that is usually months before you hear back. The entire process exhausts me and I am quickly beginning to be very choosy about what ideas I am willing to throw into the pile.

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