The dejected creator can be a dangerous force in an organization. The successful ones continue to pitch new ideas. They celebrate the one out of ten ideas accepted. In contrast, the less resilient innovators typically quit trying and become silently disengaged or they can shift into a passive-aggressive culture killer. Consequently, they use emotional stories of rejection to shape the actions of the people within their sphere of influence.
These stories turn into folklore legends that are embellished and fester in commonly heard statements.
“We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.”
“They only want you to agree with them and they are not really interested in what you have to say.”
“Watch, you will put together a list of great things to do, and not a damn thing will happen.”
This is how a negative culture takes root and becomes nearly impossible to resurrect. Before long, the organization will have behaviors and ideas driven by safety and a desire to not rock the boat. With these weak voices of thought, multiple perspectives become extinct and ideas become stagnate. These predictable ideas then lead to protectionism and eventual organizational deaths.
Borders took a strong foothold in the publishing and retail environment with their revolutionary inventory tracking system. This drove such a high level of efficiency that Borders could expand significantly. In the early 1990s, the Border’s brothers sold their company to Kmart which was then made independent four years later. During that time, both Barnes & Noble and Borders were growing aggressively during the dawn of the internet. Barnes & Noble chose to develop their own eCommerce platform to sell books, while Borders chose to focus their efforts on global expansion and decided to outsource their online book sales to a small start-up, Amazon.
During this timeframe, Borders experienced significant management turnover and their original culture of aggressive innovation had turned into passive maintenance. Another side effect of the rotating management team was that the company leaders no longer had industry expertise. Having a limited ability to diagnose the key issues their company was facing. The culture built to silence the insight of their staffs. The same staffs that had the ability to diagnose the issues. For that reason, Borders was over-extended. They were slow to get on the web. They never developed an e-reader. By 2011, store closings and layoffs were inevitable. Within three months, the company was insolvent, only living a short 40 years in corporate existence.
At the root of this phenomenon is that innovation is hard to manage. Simply put, the majority of leadership and management practices have focused on bringing clarity, order, and alignment which runs counter-intuitive to the creative mindset. The distinguished psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, captured the traits of the creative person noting that: they are highly energetic, they are smart and naive, they are playful and disciplined, their reality is rooted in fantasy, they are highly independent, curious, questioning, open to new ideas, and divergent thinkers.
Taking those attributes and evaluating them against behavioral models that begin in school shows a wide gap between school conformity and student creativity. Numerous studies have validated these findings that teachers show preferential treatment to the students that show the traits that are counter to creativity: conformity, unquestioning acceptance of authority, and compliance. The studies also point out that teachers routinely suppress creative traits and in some cases label creative children as obnoxious misbehaviors. Progressing from schooling to organizational settings, the leadership behaviors of creative suppression parallel each other.
A staple of solid management is sound discipline and order. Looking back on Napoleon’s Army to Fredrick Taylor’s view on industrial management, there are little variations as the goal is to have repeatability, standardization, and as little deviation as possible. These practices are still in place today and stretch into the area of knowledge workers for a solid manager was one that had a firm blueprint of how their organization worked and they were the central player in its functionality. To maintain that level of control, however, eliminates the usefulness of a curious employee always asking why and experimenting with different ways to do the same task.
Performance reviews, bonus structures, and promotions reinforce this stifling behavior. Individuals that rock the boat the least are the ones that can be depended on. The oppression of the innovative persists, boredom and stagnation set in, then disengagement and attrition follow. Those that create leave while those that adhere to process stay in the organization with a culture that has the inability to create and to disrupt the marketplace. Fortunately, a revolution in the world is occurring where complexity is growing exponentially. Some work models and processes change each iteration. Work is becoming more ambiguous that it is impossible for a centralized leadership figure to control everything. This new reality is bringing forward a new manager, not one of a product, but a manager of complexity, one that will famine if their focus is on control and will feast if their focus is on facilitating innovation.
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