Most managers don’t want creative employees

A couple of summers ago I read Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson. The book lives up to its title and one that I heartily recommend. It contains a wealth of ideas and views on management that you don’t often come across.

For example, this on the management of creativity:

Real creativity, the kind that is responsible for breakthrough changes in our society, always violates the rules. That is why it is so unmanageable and that is why, in most organizations, when we say we desire creativity we really mean manageable creativity. We don’t mean raw, dramatic, radical creativity that requires us to change.

As much as managers and organizations say they want to be innovative and groundbreaking, they usually don’t mean they want each of their individual employees to be innovative and groundbreaking. They want the rules to be followed, because that’s how things are supposed to work. They don’t believe that rules are meant to be broken.

The real message, though, is this: break the rules and be successful and we’ll back you all the way, but break the rules and fail and you are on your own.

This is something that Seth Godin talks about quite a bit. Don’t expect any cover from your boss when you try something new, he tells us, because that’s not your boss’s job. If your creativity, your art, is important to you, the best thing you can do is to simply do it. Or, as he says in Linchpin:

The reason you might choose to embrace the artist within you now is that this is the path to (cue the ironic music) security. When it is time for layoffs, the safest job belongs to the artist, the linchpin, the one who can’t be easily outsourced or replaced.

Update: This post is an updated version of something I first wrote in June 2008. I was inspired to update it by a common search term in my referral logs (rules are meant to be broken), my earlier post (Some) Rules are meant to be broken, and the recent series of Hey Leaders, Wake Up! posts at hackingwork.com.

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An abundance of opportunity (some initial thoughts on “Cognitive Surplus”)

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected AgeCognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In his new book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky covers some of the same ground as several other authors I’ve read this year. But even though some of the starting material may be the same – such as the Israeli day care story – Shirky tells a very different story, with a very different moral and outcome than those other books. (In case you’re wondering, the two that come immediately to mind are Dan Pink’s Drive and Seth Godin’s Linchpin.)

The upshot of the book is that in the last half of twentieth century people found themselves, in general, with a higher level of education and a larger amount of free time than at most any other time in history, while at the same time “accidents” of technology and policy created an environment of increased social isolation (think interstates, suburbs, and TV). On top of this physical isolation, there was technological isolation; the means simply did not exist for individuals to easily share their knowledge or their interests, and the ability to organize large groups around an interest was reserved for the well financed. This was the purview of the “professionals”.

As a result, we – especially in the US – became a nation of consumers. Even as the technology has developed over the past decade or so to allow for broad sharing and easy organizing, Shirky says, we are only now coming to understand the implications and actually be ready to take advantage of the opportunities this technology presents. We are only now coming to appreciate what the “amateurs” can bring.

And this, in the end, is the point of the book: We have an abundance of opportunities available to us as a result of the technologies of social media (and all that entails), and it is our responsibility to take advantage of those opportunities.

A lot of thoughts rattling around my brain about this great book, more to come. In the mean time, check out Shirky talking about his ideas in this TEDx talk.

It’s not about easy; thoughts on a world without e-mail

I’ve been following Luis Suarez’ (@elsua) thoughts on a world without e-mail for quite a while now. His arguments have always made sense, and yet I’ve always had this nagging feeling of, “Yeah, but….”

Last week I had a chance to view/listen to a recent presentation Luis gave about making the jump from e-mail to social media tools, along with the mind map – no PowerPoint, either! – that goes with it, appropriately subtitled E-mail is where knowledge goes to die. I think I finally understand.

After listening to the presentation, and talking with some co-workers and others about it, one of the most common comments I heard was, “That sounds great, but it looks so hard. Why would I want to do make my life and my work harder?”

It was then that I realized that when most people who are tied to e-mail hear this argument about social media vs. e-mail, they apparently think that moving their work is supposed to make doing their job easier. But that’s not what it’s about at all.

Using social media isn’t about easy, it’s about better. More effective, more productive, less wasteful; however you define “better”.

In e-mail, there is no learning, no opportunity to learn.  In fact, e-mail practically screams “non-learning environment”. Despite what it is you are actually trying to accomplish in your work, you spend a good amount of time trying to stay out of “mail jail”. When someone new joins your team or your project, they will never catch up. How can they, when all the knowledge has died in e-mail archives that are “somewhere else”.

With social media, nearly every transaction is a learning opportunity. Sure you’ll spend as much time sorting through all your social media contacts and messages as you do processing e-mail. But with social media, you are forced to make sense of the information, all the while creating and sharing new knowledge about whatever it is you are working on.

Of course, if you don’t care about learning, about improving, about becoming more effective, then sticking with e-mail is fine.

Ignore everybody (but don’t ignore this book)

Like Rework (which I reviewed last week), Ignore Everybody is my kind of book. Written by Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid.com, it is made up of 40 short essays that each dive into a very specific idea or question. And pictures, lots of pictures from the cube-grenade gallery at gapingvoid.com.

Based on many years of experience, the advice that MacLeod dispenses is almost brutal in its description of what aspiring artists (used in the loosest, Seth Godin-esque way) have to look forward to, and what they have to do to get there. Just reading the essay titles gives you an idea of what to expect:

  • Put the hours in
  • If your business plan depends on suddenly being “discovered” by some bit shot, your plan will probably fail
  • Keep your day job
  • Selling out is harder than it looks

If you are looking for an “easy ticket” to success, this isn’t the book that will get you there. (Hint: such a book doesn’t exist.)

None of this is new, of course, to those who are interested in pursuing mastery and are willing to put in the effort it takes to achieve that mastery. Who aren’t focused on a specific outcome but are interested in the journey on which they find themselves. There is plenty in the book to reinforce the importance of that attitude:

  • Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether
  • Sing in your own voice
  • Worrying about “Commercial vs. Artistic” is a complete waste of time
  • Write from the heart
  • The best way to get approval is not to need it

In some ways, this book simply tells us what most of already know. Maybe we know it subconsciously, just under the radar of what we are willing to acknowledge. Maybe we know that it is true but just can’t bring ourselves to do anything about it. But as MacLeod lays out in the opening essay:

GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS. THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED.

Good ideas come with a heavy burden, which why so few people execute them. So few people can handle it.

Ignore Everybody simply lays it out on the table to where you can’t ignore it, where you have to decide for yourself, “Can I handle it?”

One of my favorites...

What organizations need isn’t always what they want

From Seth Godin’s recent article Why ask why?

The secret to creativity is curiosity… The student with no curiosity… is no problem at all. Lumps are easily managed.

Same thing is true for most of the people we hire. We’d like them to follow instructions, not ask questions, not question the status quo.

This reminded me of something I jotted down in my notebook from Richard Farson’s book Management of the Absurd:

Real creativity, the kind that is responsible for breakthrough changes in our society, always violates the rules. That is why it is so unmanageable and that is why, in most organizations, when we say we desire creativity we really mean manageable creativity. We don’t mean raw, dramatic, radical creativity that requires us to change.

As much as organizations say they want to be innovative and groundbreaking, they usually don’t mean they want each of their individual employees to be innovative and groundbreaking.

Even though that is often exactly what they need.