Spare us any more business books about creativity in the workplace, says
Two texts for this week, both recommended by readers. The first is the Papal
encyclical Centesimus Annus of May 1991, issued on the feast of St Joseph the
Worker, by John Paul II.
The second is a new book Experiment at Work: Explosions and Experiences at the
Most Frightening Company on Earth by Andy Law, whose non-hierarchical,
co-operative and wincingly hip ad agency St Luke’s was once hailed as the
future of work. That future no longer includes Law who is pursuing ‘other
interests’, ploughing a non-hierarchical furrow all by himself.
Both books are concerned with the creativity, dignity and meaningfulness of
work, but it would be quite wrong to overdo the similarities.
Law’s book is a remorselessly enthusiastic call to take risks in work
organisation, for businesses to be animated by a purpose such as creativity
above profit, and to opt out of the deadening, habit-forming routines of
conventional work. St Luke’s is referred to not as a company, but as ‘a
movement’, while its staff act like ‘spores’, germinating the brand values.
Law believes there is ‘something not right’ with capitalism (but does not
really say what) and argues that changing the nature of work is a question of
‘attitudes and behaviour’. The book posits no role for the State in shaping working
life, and takes no interest in structural labour market issues, like equality
or pay. It also has that clammy and trite top-of-the-head tone that afflicts
many business books.
There is little in it that the Pontiff could object to, though Law’s philosophy
of ‘chaotica’ would sit uneasily with a canon of revealed truth showing the
source of permanent moral values.
The encyclical, naturally, is a more measured affair. It attacks socialism
for its mechanistic view of workers as mere molecules in an organism, and says
there is a legitimate role for enterprise outside State interference. However,
it argues that it is the responsibility of the State to ensure a ‘certain
equality’ between employer and employee in their relationship and to set a
legal framework for adequate rest, a limitation of working hours, a ‘just wage’
and, crucially, access to training and knowledge – the source of economic
It states: "The fact is that many people, perhaps the majority today,
do not have the means which would enable them to take their place in an
effective and humanly dignified way within a productive system in which work is
truly central. They have no possibility of acquiring the basic knowledge which
would enable them to express their creativity and develop their
Catholic social doctrine might not be zany enough for Law, but he would
surely concur with the encyclical’s scorn for "a style of life which is
presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than
Which, if either, should busy employers read? I sense they may be drawn to
Law’s experiment: reconciling economic advance with fulfilling work is the
guiding principle of the human relations school. Tales of radical ways of
working are depressingly rare – so rare, in fact, that the Government has taken
the faintly absurd step of legislating to encourage employers to dabble with
flexible work arrangements.
In addition, the idea that the way people are managed and led has a critical
role in the quality of the experience of working will chime with many
predilections. They may also enjoy St Luke’s list of values, which includes
such things as ‘rebellion, sacrifice, personal transformation, innovative ways
of working, opening minds, creativity, challenger brand…’
This choice would be a mistake. Books that believe changing working life is
all about changing attitudes are hopelessly empty. No click of the creative
fingers will result in deeply ingrained structures being magicked away – as if
practice follows attitude like an obedient hound. There seems far more evidence
that it goes precisely in the opposite direction: the habits of work determine
attitudes and behaviour; employment contracts determine psychological
Either way, there is a circularity in this approach that it is impossible to
escape. A few generous-spirited employers snapping out of it and deciding to
offer fulfilling environments to their staff would be great, but it is not
really persuasive as a recipe for the large-scale improvement of working life.
Which is why the choice of reading for something worthwhile to say on the
subject of meaningful work involves a novel trip to www.vatican.va. Here,
meaningful work is seen as a social question involving a role for the State in
ensuring and raising minimum standards across pay, rest, the provision of
leisure and so on. But also, because work is central to the experience of being
human, it becomes a responsibility for employers to allow their staff ‘the
expression of one’s own personality at the workplace without suffering any
affront to one’s conscience or personal dignity’.
Creativity cannot be imposed on people.
As far as I know, the Vatican has sanctified no corporate-style statement of
values – at least none that are short enough to fit on wall plaques.
The St Luke’s version is more go-go than the usual stuff about respect for
individuals and integrity. But could anyone possibly do any better than ‘do as
you would be done by’?