Inspiring Employee Creativity

In a thought-powered world, planning and execution are merely table stakes for leadership. Real leaders must unleash creativity.

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An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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History, I argued in a prior article, suggests that technologies shape leadership. Today’s digital technologies, in addition to requiring companies to adopt culturally neutral leadership standards, are also forcing a reassessment of core leadership principles.

Prior technological revolutions largely enabled physical work to be done better, faster, cheaper. In contrast, digital technologies are making work increasingly thought-driven; at the core of good work are ideas, concepts, intellectual property, and symbols to be manipulated on computer screens. Consequently, unleashing people’s creativity and inspiring them to contribute must become a central goal of leadership.

The Dominant Leadership Types: “Controllers” and “Empowerers”

Two types of leaders dominate today’s work environment. “Controllers” prescribe standards, closely drive execution, analyze data that’s produced to progressively refine the standards, and evaluate people on their past performance. “Empowerers” prefer forward-looking discussions with direct reports. They use these to decide what work needs to be done.

Controllers run call centers that record every word and keystroke and require employees to refer to supervisors when issues unanticipated by their scripts arise.1 They see early virtual reality technologies as a tool for shortening training, minimizing on-the-job errors, and avoiding travel for meetings.2 They use dashboard tools to monitor individuals and tasks in real time, ignoring the fact that normal variation, endemic in nature, doesn’t require immediate corrective action.

Empowerers have begun emerging recently, often from industries that conduct high value-added, intellectual property-intensive work across the world. They operate in “connection and inspiration”4 environments that need employee development, rapid change, and teamwork.5 They found the Controllers’ approach problematic, as it often stopped them from prescribing precise goals beyond the short term. They also struggled to provide open-ended feedback that wasn’t conventionally positive or negative about issues in which their employees possessed greater expertise than they had. In response, they shed, or at least sharply changed, backward-looking annual performance reviews — considering them rigid, burdensome, and outdated artifacts — and replaced them with regular forward-looking conversations.6 Some use mobile apps to facilitate these discussions.

Neither of these approaches to leadership goes far enough. The real leadership challenge is that today’s digital technologies make work increasingly thought-driven, not muscle-powered.



An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
More in this series


1.See, for example, D. Enthoven, “How to Monitor Workers Effectively and Avoid the Big Brother Effect,” Data Informed, Sept. 11, 2013,; M. McAlpen, “4 Call Center Compliance Traps — and What to Do About Them,” CIO, Sept. 14, 2015,; and “Call Center Supervisor Best Practices,” white paper, DMG Consulting LLC, West Orange, New Jersey, 2007.

2.Outside the world of gaming, virtual reality is still at the show-and-tell level and lacks value-adding products. Media articles speculate on possible uses ranging from simply improving productivity to training to better prototyping. See for example, J. O’Brien, “The Race to Make Virtual Reality an Actual (Business) Reality,” Fortune, April 27, 2016,; Forbes Technology Council, “How Virtual Reality Will Impact Businesses in the Next Five Years,” Forbes, July 22, 2016,; and C. McIntyre, “How Virtual Reality Is Finally Starting to Be Useful for Businesses,” Canadian Business Jan. 9, 2017,

3.For example, see

4.M. Nisen, “Why GE Had to Kill Its Annual Performance Reviews After More Than Three Decades,” Quartz, Aug. 13, 2015,

5.P. Cappelli and A. Tavis, “The Performance Management Revolution,” Harvard Business Review, October 2016, This article also has a nice summary of the evolution of performance appraisals in the U.S., starting with the efforts of the U.S. Army during World War I.

6.K. Duggan, “Why the Annual Performance Review Is Going Extinct,” Fast Company, Oct. 20, 2015,

7.R. Goffee and G. Jones, “Leading Clever People,” Harvard Business Review, March 2007,

8.M.T. Hansen, “How John F. Kennedy Changed Decision-Making for Us All,” Harvard Business Review, Nov. 22, 2013.

9.A. Mukherjee, “It May Be Time to Get Rid of ‘SMART’ Management,” Forbes, Jan. 12, 2016,

10.D. Pink, “The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce,

11.G. Wolf, “Steve Jobs: The Next Insanely Great Thing,” Wired, Feb. 1, 1996, Jobs said in this Q&A: “Creativity is just connecting things,” and creative people “connect experiences they’ve had.… A lot of people … haven’t had very diverse experiences. So, they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions.”

12.J. Love, “Hirable Like Me,” Kellogg School of Management, April 3, 2013,

13.G.B. White, “Millennials in Search of a Different Kind of Career,” The Atlantic, June 12, 2015,

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