Why creativity is bananas

I met recently with Brian Carney, of The Wall Street Journal in Europe. Brian has co-authored a really excellent book, Freedom Inc., on how organisations can drive greater success through deeper engagement and liberation of their employees. Its philosophy gels nicely with my own views on the need and opportunity for businesses to think and act more creatively.

I think we both share the view that the fundamental problem organisations face is not a lack of desire to do things differently but the deeply ingrained culture of business practice that makes them not only resistant to change, but also resistant to common sense. 

Exploring this topic in his book, Brian describes the situation perfectly, as follows:

“A famous experiment involving five macaques and a banana – which admittedly may or may not have happened – offers a clue to help unravel this mystery.

The macaques are in a cage. A banana hangs from the ceiling, with stairs leading to the tasty treat. But the moment the first macaque starts to climb toward the banana, the researcher sprays him – and all the other macaques – with cold water. The macaques quickly get the message: Reaching for the banana – or even letting anyone else do so – is a bad idea. Once they’ve learned their lesson, the researcher replaces one of the five macaques with a newcomer. Sure enough, the rookie spots the banana and heads for the stairs – whereupon he is tackled by the other four, who remember and fear the cold-water treatment. Frightened, he stops his initiative. 

Once the newcomer has learned his lesson another veteran of the water hose is removed and replaced by another neophyte. The process repeats itself, with the first replacement joining in the beating of the new guy without even knowing why he must be prevented from climbing those stairs. One by one, the original macaques are replaced, but each newcomer learns the rule – don’t go for the banana – even though none of them, by the end of the experiment, have ever experienced the cold shower that the first group got. If the macaques could speak, they’d probably just report that going for the banana is against company policy or that ‘this is how things are done around here’ – call it monkey bureaucracy.”

Substitute monkeys with corporate leaders and bananas with creativity – and researchers with shareholders, banks and business schools – and here’s my outtake: It’s okay to be a monkey in the business world, just don’t ever lose your appetite for bananas.

First published on The Crossed Cow, 6 October 2010.