Preparing for Uncertainty: How to use Creaction at Work

By Len Schlesinger and Charles Kiefer

In an excerpt from their book, Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future, the authors Len Schlesinger and Charles Kiefer demonstrate how you can change the status quo and implement Creaction (a blend of creation and action) at your organization.


The Wrong Direction

Historical approaches to introducing new ideas to or changing an organization have often followed a straightforward path:

1. Determine where you want to be – in our case, a company that uses Creaction when appropriate or at least on your project.

2. Determine how close the organization is to the goal (probable answer: “Not very”).

3. Chart a course between where you want to be (a project or organization that uses Creaction) and where you are now (one that does not).

4. Install some sort of reward system, support, and training that would allow the change to happen.

5. Add metrics that will chart the progress toward the goal and identify when things are getting off course.

6. Launch and then do remedial work as necessary until the objective is reached.


Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It should. It’s perfect Prediction. This route might involve more use of Creaction, but it probably won’t. And you probably won’t like the journey very much. There are three reasons why.

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First, experience and research has shown that trying to change things like culture or decision-making processes with this type of process is labored at best and often flat out fails. While the analogy is clichéd by now, it is also true: organizations, like the human body, tend to reject foreign bodies inserted into them. And, as we have seen, Creaction is about as foreign as you can get when it comes to the way established companies do their business.

Second, the process we outlined could take months or maybe years.

Where to use Creaction? ln product or service innovation, business model innovation, and perhaps across the entire organization.
Third, by going down this path, you run the risk of undermining the Prediction skills within your organization. That would be a huge mistake. Even though the universe grows seemingly more unpredictable by the minute, there are – and always will be – a huge number of things, maybe even the majority, which are predictable and you don’t want to weaken or eliminate a superior skill (Prediction) that the organization has, one that is effective under the right circumstances.


The Why, When, and Where of Creaction in Organizations

Why use Creaction in organizations? Success with out-of-the-box innovation is spotty at best. This alternative has worked well for people who must deal with uncertainty every day: entrepreneurs (There is nothing more uncertain than trying to create something that has never existed before).

When to use Creaction? ln situations when predictive methods just don’t make a lot of sense.

Where to use Creaction? ln product or service innovation, business model innovation, and perhaps across the
entire organization.

Clearly, the historical approach is not appropriate when you want to introduce new ideas or change. If you want to use Creaction successfully, you are going to need to take a different approach.

Let’s talk about the steps you might take.


What Can you do as a Single Employee?

So you want to show – teach may be a better way of putting it – your organization that Creaction is a viable tool. What do you do? First, realize that the learning has to occur on two fronts – on the individual (you) and organizational levels (your boss, peers, and subordinates).

You need to say, “Instead of butting my head against the wall trying to get the organization to accept this new way of thinking, my starting point needs to be how do I develop the ability to know when I should be leaning more heavily into Creaction?” You need to develop the ability to know when using Creaction is the right course of action.

In other words, as you face any new situation, ask yourself: “Is this a challenge I have seen before, and/or one where I am likely to know what is going to happen? If it is, I should probably employ the Prediction skills I have been trained to use for years. There is absolutely no reason to go down the Creaction path.”

But if that is not the case – “in this situation, the future is basically unknowable” – then it makes sense to start thinking about employing Creaction.

When you do, you act exactly as you would if you were on your own as an entrepreneur. You would say, “Okay, so this really is an exercise in knowing who I am, who I know, what I know, getting things done through my personal networks, and doing everything in a way that absolutely minimizes the cost.”

This is an argument for being clever and looking for innovative ways to work within the bounds of your own and your organization’s acceptable loss. That way, if someone discovers and objects to what you are doing and the seeming lack of logic behind it, you can point out that the risk to the organization is minimal, while the upside could be huge.

When to use Creaction? ln situations when predictive methods just don’t make a lot of sense.
Unless you are CEO, or a member of the C-suite at the very least, you generally can’t convince your organization to create a new structure, but you can persuade it to perhaps attack a given problem from an unusual angle. (“Hey, boss, can we think about this one a different way?”) You can do that, especially if you follow up with a way to save the organization money or operate more efficiently.

You can complain, “I don’t have any leverage; I can’t change the cubicles, I can’t rewrite the reward system and everything else.” And the answer is, “No you can’t; don’t even try.” But simply through your own thinking and getting other people to think differently, you can have enormous impact without changing any of that stuff.

The simple fact is “smart is smart,” and we’re talking about you offering an additional way of viewing problems. You’ll never get in real trouble for doing that, especially if you do it gently by saying, “Can we think about this differently?”

So that is the first kind of learning that has to take place to introduce Creaction into the organization, the learning you have to do.

The second kind is organizational learning. You ask, “How do I make the organization (at least the part of it that is around me and what I want to do) hospitable to Creaction? What do I need to do to convince people that an additional way of thinking could be helpful, and that Creaction is a tool we should employ under the right circumstances?”

There is no recipe for this. We’re dealing with something that is essentially a creative act, and consequently each organization has to handle it in its own unique way. If the company looks to adopt another company’s version, it’s because it’s leaning right back into predictive thinking, that is, “If I imitate them somehow, it will be good for me.”

Imitation will probably not be very successful, for at least two reasons. First, as of this writing, no large organization has formally adopted Creaction, so the places where it is being used are ad hoc and functioning within the unique confines of that organization.

Second, no two organizations are exactly the same, so what works well in one will not necessarily work in another. The upshot? You can learn from what others have done, but you can’t adopt their methods completely. You need to put your own spin on it. Wholesale copying isn’t going to work. One size does not fit all. Your organization is different from any other, as are you.


How Should an Organization Act in the Face of Uncertainty?

By Blending Creaction and Prediction

What follows, with the most sincere apologies to Stephen R. Covey, is our current list of the seven habits of successful organizational creactionists. Whether you are a budding creactionist or a manager of one, you should remember this list of tactics as you try to employ Creaction in your organization:

1. Link what you want to do to your firm’s a business imperatives. This is just about always fatal if it is overlooked – and it generally is. That’s a shame since it is so easily addressed. Yes, of course, the idea of the rocket backpack that will allow us to fly to work is exciting, but if you work for a company that makes ball bearings, it is hard to see the fit. You want to begin the conversation by being able to say something like this, “You know, the organization has the business goals of A, B, and C. (You can talk about organizational goals – such as improving teamwork – as well, but odds are you will find a more receptive audience if you start with business goals.) I’ve got an idea that I think will fit perfectly.”

2. Produce obvious, “local” business results. Don’t focus on organizational or cultural change. Prove the efficacy of your idea in the vocabulary and currency of your organization. Sure, it would be nice if you could change your organization into the next Google overnight, a firm that is willing to go wherever the market takes it. But if your boss’s goal is to have the highest performing region in the company, that (a la point number 1) is the place to focus your attention.

3. Make sure there is sufficient autonomy. The unit(s) or individuals that use Creaction need to have enough freedom to be different and protected from the “restorative forces” the organization will impose (even in spite of itself). What this means for you and your project is this. Don’t worry about getting everyone committed. You don’t need to. There are four postures people can adopt: keep it from happening, let it happen, help it happen, and make it happen. Obviously, you don’t want anyone in the “keep it from happening mode,” if you can avoid it. But most people simply have to “let it happen.” You (and possibly a few others) have to “make it happen.” Your boss and maybe a few others have to “help it happen” and create a buffer around you. So, rather than asking, “How do I get everybody committed to my idea?” keep asking yourself, “What is the least amount of commitment I need to move forward?” You probably don’t need a lot of signoff to get underway.

4. Have volunteers only, please. An important and overlooked point is that only people with desire should play in the unknown. It’s not a good idea to compel people to work on a Creaction initiative. If you do, at the first sign of pushback, they are likely to start looking for excuses to go back to doing “their real jobs” (in the way they have always done them). Changing anything is hard enough without working with people who aren’t committed.

5. Don’t make big “kickoff” announcements. Initially focus your attention only on the people who need it, that is, the people who are going to help you implement your idea.

They need to understand the principles of Creaction. Their boss and their boss’s boss? Not so much. In other words, there is no forced-march training of groups, large or small, and certainly no organization wide approach to teaching Creaction at this point.

6. Manage expectations. In early phases, keep it low-key. Be relatively quiet and offer only enough public announcements to provide sufficient autonomy of the experimental units. Don’t mislead people into thinking that things will change quickly or that their lives will be different (except for the people actually involved in the Creaction project). At all times, your mantra should be “underpromise and overdeliver.”

7. Build on successes and manage pace and momentum. Learn what works and what doesn’t. Make sure you’ve got a little bonfire going before you spread the coals. Pick up a couple of small wins before trying to go any further. The advantage of Creaction is that it does not require replacing any of the existing structures that work for predictable situations. These must be left in place while selectively permitting the seeding of Creaction where it is warranted. As we have seen throughout, Creaction doesn’t replace Prediction; it’s an additional tool. You don’t radically change the existing systems, because the organization will just resist your efforts. Initially, you simply add to what is already there.

This example, which strikes close to home for us, shows exactly how the seven steps work. Year in and year out, Babson College is recognized worldwide as one of the leading academic institutions in the teaching and studying of entrepreneurship. The college is also continually rated one of the best business schools in the United States and ranked as one of the world’s leading executive education providers.

The problem was that for many students who wanted to attend, either as undergraduate or graduate students, Babson had only one campus, located in suburban Boston. If you wanted to learn at Babson, you needed to head to Wellesley, Massachusetts, which was not necessarily convenient, especially if you had a full-time job elsewhere in the country.

The obvious solution? Open another campus.

The obvious concern? If Babson set up shop on the West Coast – San Francisco seemed to make sense given there are literally thousands of innovative start-ups in and around the city (Silicon Valley is within easy driving distance) – would people enroll?

Faced with that question, people who employ Prediction would say: “Let’s spend $100,000 on market research to find out if there is a market for Babson on the West Coast. If there is, we can then put together a marketing program, buy some advertising, set up an admissions office, and launch our satellite campus, something that will cost us another $100,000.”

But people who employ Creaction would take a different tack. Using the logic of “let’s take a small step immediately and see what happens,“ they would say, “Let’s just start advertising and say we are accepting applications for the spring semester. It will cost the same $100,000 as a marketing study. If people don’t come, then we know there is no market, and all we have lost is the $100,000 we would have spent on market research anyway. But if qualified students do apply and enroll, then we know there is a market. We will have saved $100,000 (the money we would have spent on market research). And we will be underway six months earlier.”

That’s exactly what the college did. Imagine a prestigious business school not doing traditional market research and instead offering its “Fast Track MBA” (an accelerated, part-time, twenty-four-month program designed for experienced professionals who want to advance their careers while simultaneously earning their degree), in early 2010. Enrollment exceeded expectations, and Babson now has a West Coast presence.


Printed by permission of Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Edited excerpt from Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future by Leonard A. Schlesinger and Charles F. Kiefer. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

About the Authors

SchlesingerLen Schlesinger is the Baker Foundation Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School where he teaches general management. He was the 12th president of Babson College, the world’s leading educational institution for entrepreneurship. He was formerly Vice Chairman and COO at Limited Brands.

KieferCharlie Kiefer is founder of Innovation Associates whose programs and services in insight, entrepreneurial thinking and learning-based change permanently improve a large organization’s ability to innovate. He teaches Corporate Entrepreneurship at the Sloan School of Management, MIT.

Len and Charlie have co-authored a number of books and articles on entrepreneurship including Just Start (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).




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