Making a good part of my living as a public speaker means many conversations with potential clients about their events. Recently I had the following phone conversation about giving a keynote talk at a large manufacturing company:
Potential client: “So how much do you know about our industry?”
Me: “Honestly, not much. But the way innovation works, its often better to hear ideas from outside your industry, as it will give you new ways to think about how you do your work.”
Potential Client: Silence.
Me: (Brain scrambles to fill the silence) “…well think about this. Ford got the idea for assembly line cars by watching his butcher take cows apart. Anti-virus software uses the language, and tactics, of biology, not computer science. Leonardo da Vinci got most of his engineering ideas from watching birds and rivers. It’s by seeking out different ways, systems, perspectives, even vocabularies that many creative people find their great ideas. If you let me talk to your organization I can help them get ideas from places they’d never expect to find them.”
Potential Client: (The sound of crickets, over a phone line)
Me: (Brain in scramble overdrive) “If Innovation is something new, how can you expect to find it looking where you’ve always looked?”
Potential Client: “We’ll think about it. Thanks.”
A few days later they decided to go with someone in their own industry, primarily because… (drumroll)… they were in their own industry. So much for my skills of persuasion, eh?
The irony of creativity is this: people want to be creative without change. They want innovation with no risk. They want a new result with the same exact behavior. They can talk for hours about how passionate they are about creativity, but when it comes to actually changing anything, they’ll find a way to repeat the same thing again and again. That’s why books, seminars, courses and lectures on creativity rarely translate into much actual creation. No one can make change happen except the person who must accept the fears, and consequences, of change.
Situations like the above always make me wonder: if an organization isn’t open to taking a creative risk with a public speaker for an event, an entirely non-critical kind of business decision (whats the worst that can happen? A room full of bored people?) what hope is there for taking any real creative risks on the big decisions that matter? Not much.
A useful indicator of a company’s openness to change might just be the small things. How creative are they about the small decisions that govern the details of a company? While it is true many HR groups that govern the little decisions (like event speakers) can be more conservative than the rest of the company, looking at small decisions can reveal tons about the creative culture in an organization, especially regarding the ironies of pursuing creative thinking.
Whenever I visit a company and I’m shown around, I wonder: where are people allowed to take risks and be creative with little or no approval? In their dress? Their language? Their hours? Their processes? Their office setup? Where in all the daily decisions is change allowed, or encouraged? I’d bet that most places that are successful with making big changes are better with accepting small changes too. And the small examples of creativity, since they happen so often, can be easier to spot as an outsider (or perhaps, as an interview candidate) than the big ones.