Creativity Without Borders

Innovation from East and West

How Are Einstein And Football Coaches Similar?

Structure and creativity: odd bedfellows or perfect mates?

We need structure, we need order, we need schedules and we need our system taught a certain way. But within that there needs to be creativity to keep growing, to keep the energy and the enthusiasm. What new wrinkles do we need to make us better?

Chris Petersen, Boise State Football Head Coach, USA Today, 6 October 2010

Chris Petersen
Albert Einstein would understand football coaches and jail deputies, at least their uniforms. He routinely wore the same (type of) clothes every day, walked the same route, with the same colleagues. Einstein understood the value of routine and structure. With fewer choices to make about the mundane aspects of life, he could focus on more important questions. Having routine in some aspects of work and life opens up “space” for creative thinking in other areas. One football program uses this approach to better train players.

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Boise State Unviersity's football program has had a good run and more is likely to come in the future.  During last season, the program was ranked in the top 10 and many of the graduating players have joined the NFL, several becoming starters.  In the current year, the program has several new coaches and players and yet is still following a structure that has served them well. 

During the football season, Boise State University coaches wear “uniforms” of khaki trousers and a blue or orange football program logo shirt just about every day to work.  Of course they wear matching uniforms (shirt or jackets, slacks, hats) for games.   When a business manager once asked how the football program could “get ready for a game each week,” Coach Chris Petersen’s response was“It takes a year to get ready for a game every week.” He meant that the routine the program follows outside of the regular season must be equally as organized as what happens during the fall game season. Practice schedules for the fall, spring and summer are in place months in advance.  During the season, daily schedules follow a pattern that varies only slightly, at most, if there is an additional or one fewer day during the weekly cycle. 

Petersen and his program are part of a group called The Gang, high performing, highly creative organizations in wildly different fields — from sports to dance, software to law enforcement. In addition to finding routines that allows creativity, the Gang members also follow fairly common approaches or (structured) processes for creating something new or doing things differently — whether an ad campaign, theater production, or football game plan. Typically, they review what worked and did not before; next, they brainstorm for new ideas; third, they try out ideas /rehearse/practice and decide which ideas to keep and which to toss. Fourth, they beta test/preview/run through the final product or service or play and last, they implement — launch the campaign, open the production, or play the game. The amount of person hours for each stage may vary, but the stages themselves are fairly consistent across all of the different organizations. 

Some organizations build the habit of creativity into meetings. One Gang member is famously “meeting happy.” Any time of day, meetings happen — partly to be inclusive and partly to give time for “open thinking” or brainstorming time. Over the years, the organization’s leaders have found that about 15% meeting time is routinely devoted to creative idea generation, although some managers are trying to boost that to 25%. This means that in any given meeting, whether an hour, a day or three days, a good proportion of the time focuses on generating ideas. No big deal, just a normal habit.

Albert Einstein
Routine and structure.  Loved by coaches and Albert Einstein.

 

 

Copyright © Nancy K. Napier

To listen to a podcast about The Gang, a group of diverse high performing, highly creative  organizations, please visit Boise State University's Beyond the Blue podcast series: http://beyondtheblue.boisestate.edu/blog/2012/01/03/nancy-napier/

Nancy K. Napier, Ph.D., is Professor of Strategy and International Business at Boise State University.

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