Getting your employees to be more creative might be one of the toughest jobs a leader ever faces. It’s hard enough to figure out how to be more creative yourself, much less find a way to get other people to up their creative game.
But sometimes getting your employees to be more creative isn’t the problem. The problem is getting their less-than-imaginative manager to give them the space to invent. The following story illustrates that point in a way even the most controlling of bosses will understand.
One evening, a 9-year-old boy named James was sitting with his aunt in the kitchen having tea. Frustrated with his apparent laziness, she barked at him, “James, I never saw such an idle boy! Take a book or employ yourself usefully. For the last hour you have not spoken one word, but taken off the lid of that kettle and put it on again.” It seems he was fascinated with the steam coming from the kettle. He held a silver spoon over the jet of steam and watched as drops of water formed on the spoon and ran down the handle. Over and over again he studied this simple phenomenon. “Are you not ashamed of spending your time this way?” she scolded.
Fortunately, the boy was undaunted by her admonishment. Two decades later, in 1765, he was still fascinated with the phenomenon he discovered in his aunt’s kitchen. It was that year the 29-year-old James Watt invented a new kind of steam engine that helped usher in the Industrial Revolution.
Innovation isn’t a linear process. Inventors need the freedom to play with ideas to see what fruit they will bear. A well-meaning boss might think he’s doing his job by keeping his team focused on the most productive areas to explore. But when you insist on knowing what the fruit will be before allowing the play, many of the most revolutionary discoveries might stay undiscovered.
This story is helpful in coaching the manager of a group to give his or her inventors room to invent, to explore. It even works if that manager is you! What they’re doing might seem like idle play, just like it did to James Watt’s aunt. But it could start a revolution.
[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]
Paul Smith is a one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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