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 book Dangerous 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.

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7 comments

  1. Very thoughtful post. Made me think that we really need to stop and explore when someone labels another individual a troublemaker. So you think Broc is a troublemaker? What is he making? Why do you see that as trouble or troubling? For whom? When?

    There is a whole layer of beliefs or even mental models (to use Senge’s term from The Fifth Discipline) in operation here that needs to be challenged instead of simply managing it at the individual event or interaction level.

    And I personally detest the blanket label of troublemaker for anyone. Rarely is one person trouble all the time (whether you view trouble as good or bad). In reality they are engaging in conversations and making contributions in whats that others find troubling, so let’s talk about that more transparently and see what unchallenged (or unstated) assumptions surface.

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    1. Jeffrey, thanks for all your thoughts – glad the post resonated for you. When talking about mental models and beliefs, I really like the label used by Robert Anton Wilson (speaking of troublemakers): “reality tunnel”.

      Trouble making is definitely contextual and I suppose one of the challenges for troublemakers is figuring out how to communicate in a way that gets the same results (questioning, rethinking, improving) without creating all the angst and blind resistance. Attacking and criticizing is definitely counterproductive, but so is never questioning or raising concerns. That’s one I’m still trying to figure out.

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      1. Maybe we need to help members of groups develop a commitment to simply express what they are feeling: “I’m troubled by what you are saying because … ” We’re all going to be troubled at times. It shouldn’t be seen as antagonistic if expressed in an open manner that indicates one is remaining open-minded, but has concerns. Expressing that and exploring it in an open and supportive atmosphere keeps the troubling ideas on the table (instead of them being attacked or shut down), but yet allows reactions to be explored more honestly. I’m thinking of the model for dialogue that William Isaacs wrote about in his book.

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        1. Jeffrey, I really appreciate you weighing in. You have good thoughts, both from the “how do we deal with troublemakers” side as well as the “how can we help troublemakers get their ideas across” side. I like the idea of “develop a commitment” and I do think that commitment goes both ways.

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  2. Thank you for this thoughtful post. It’s all about culture within an organization, isn’t it? I consider myself a creative person and I know that I’m a troublemaker. I question everything, especially authority and the status quo.

    When I worked at a multinational company, where approval was needed for even the smallest decisions, I felt suffocated. I couldn’t take initiatives without going over it with my boss. There was a clash, and soon I was let go. I didn’t mind, though.

    Soon a colleague said to me that she missed my creative energy. This may sound narcissistic, but I just wanted to share that I know what you’re talking about.

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    1. Doesn’t sound narcissistic at all. A big challenge for leaders and organizations is figuring out how to tap into the energy, passion, and ideas of employees. When I present or facilitate training programs I *want* people to question what I’m saying – it means they are thinking and trying to use it. It’s when every one remains quiet that I get worried. Passionate, caring people make like difficult because they don’t go along. They also make life better.

      I hope you’ve found a company that appreciates and knows how to benefit from your talents.

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