new ideas wanted, creativity not allowed

Good and bad is rarely as black and white as movies depict. Simple distinctions make for easy storytelling, but miss the sloppymessines of humanity. Strengths and weakness are rarely opposites – it’s not one or the other, but one with the other.

I recall reading a sci-fi book as a teenager where humans had crated enormous self-contained and mobile cities – rolling fortresses. For protection and law and order, the computers controlling the cities had been programmed to expel undesirables. Convicted criminals were expelled first, then those with criminal tendencies, then those who might be commit crimes under the right circumstances (say, stealing bread to feed their starving children), then… Soon the cities were empty of all people.

Life is mostly grey, rarely black and white, and insisting on clear divisions carries consequences. The other day, Max Mckeown (@maxmckeown) noted this on twitter, saying: Removing troublemakers may also squeeze out idea creators… There is a lot in that simple sentence. The line between troublemaker and creator is blurry at best. Under the right circumstances creators are often considered troublemakers – they ask questions (sometimes very inconvenient questions), reject the status quo, suggest other solutions, ignore politics and power base, have little regard for tradition and legacy, etc. They can be a real thorn in the sides of those who like things just so and it would be easy to expel the useful with the counterproductive.

It’s a brilliant and important reminder that us humans don’t all fit into neat shinyhappy boxes and our strengths can come at a cost. In his bookDangerous Ideas, Alf Rehn (@alfrehn) noted that many companies say they want creativity and innovation, but they really don’t. Sure, they want the benefits of designing the next hit product, but they aren’t prepared to deal with the idiosyncrasies of creative people. It’s as though “creativity” is viewed as a skill that can be produced on demand and then put away when not needed rather than a completely different perspective and thinking process.

I suspect that often, leaders are excited about bringing really creative, innovative, daring, visionary people on board. Early on, they produce some really great ideas so we ignore their quirks, but after a while their eccentricities and unwillingness to be confined to the neat and tidy “employee” box stops being cute and starts to hurt their careers. So the leaders who were so excited about having creative, idea generators on board are soon expelling them. Or the creative folks get tired of rigid walls and move on. Either way, the company is left more dogmatic, less creative, less innovative, with fewer and fewer ideas. They now offer more of the same with nothing to distinguish them from the competition.

Remember the timeless advice: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

(This was originally posted on fool with a plan on May 13, 2103)

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