The irony of creative change
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.
“It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, more dangerous to manage, than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institutions and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones”.
— Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
Nice quote Greg (I think it appears in The Myths of Innovation).
My point i suppose is that even when you take the enemies and the defenders out of the equation, and have a man standing alone on an island, getting him to make changes would be difficult. Most of us, most of the time, simply do not want to make changes and that fact explains much more of what goes on in the world than most people like to admit.
“THERE IS PAIN IN TRANSFORMATION”- Yves Behar, Fuseproject. (Fast Company, April 2008)
I strongly recommend the design issue. The interviews with Yves behar (designer of the $100 laptop) and Philip Starck (famous architect) are extremely useful.
I’ve got a sign posted next to my desk in bold 72pt Helvetica:
If you always do
what you always did
you’ll always get
what you always got.
I’ve had this exact same phone call on more occasions than I can count.
They just don’t get it…and until the leadership or decision-makers change, they likely never will.
They will be one of the many followers of “best practices” while we help the few leaders of “next practices.”
Thanks for another great blog entry!
My experience has been it’s not so much the adversion to change, but clients want someone who can understand the “as is” as well as prov ide so “to be” advice.
If you were to walk into our manned space flight program – having no experience in mannder space flight – it’s be hard to get anyone to pay attention to your potentially wonderful suggestions on how to improve the work processes.
It’s a simple matter of “making the connection.” Henry Ford (i’d conjecture) understood the meat cutting business enough to transfer the processes to cars.
There is a popular notion going around the “extreme project management” world, that igorance of the current state is somehow advantageous. Probably not true.
Well, they just want to be creative… in the good, old way :).
Interesting post Scott, especially about the freedom to be creative in the small decisions. I think it makes a huge difference when a company inherently trusts its employees even in the little things. It’s kinda like Ricardo Semler talks about treating employees as adults and not school children.
The initial part of your post though got me thinking about whether the company was put off because you said that you didn’t know much about their industry. Maybe they felt that their audience wouldn’t be able to relate to what you were saying because you were from a different industry and wouldn’t understand their specific problems and constraints. As in, What do *you* know about *our* problems?
Of course, I could be wrong and they may just have been unwilling to take a risk.
Very interesting post and I can see plenty of evidence around me of the same issues.
I submit that it was the fear of failure that stopped the person taking you on as a speaker. That speaks volumes about the organisation they worked for. If people fear failure then risk aversion follows. The question is how do you get organisations to relax that fear of failure within their employees / staff members?
Perhaps in this instance a provision of some discreationary budget that can be spent on a single event without the need for approval and the one event will not be judged on its receiving a gold star review from the audience.
We should all look to how we can encourage people to take risks within the tolerance we can allow. Go on provide some discreationary spending ability without judgement, yes you will get some flops, but you will get some amazing results too.
You didn’t learn to walk by staying on your knees afer falling for the first time!
Good article, Scott, and certainly truth behind it.
I wonder if the fact that it was a “manufacturing” company–and undoubtedly it was–is relevant to the story? (When a crime was committed by a white youth the police used to write “youth” in their blotter, but when committed by a Hispanic youth they used to write “Hispanic youth.” Both accurate, of course, but very telling of police bias.) My experience is that all companies–manufacturing, high tech, low tech, software, service, etc. are resistant to all kinds of change–innovation being one of them.
A really high performance team or company creates an ethos that they are special and different, and doing things nobody else can do. That’s good. That makes them better. And there’s some truth to it. (Think Marines.) These would be some of your very best clients but, ironically, potentially hardest to penetrate because they do deem themselves “special and unique.”
Have you ever attended a “one size fits all” consulting seminar? They’re just awful. I’m sure you’re being hurt by the history of your practice to some extent.
One of your most interesting, important, and startling teachings (for many) will be that innovation is often sparked outside the client’s industry. The fact that one of the central tenants of your consulting is not known or not embraced by the very person you wish to teach is, well, expected, I guess.
If you walked into a job interview and were asked, “What do you know about our company,” and your answer were “Not much, but that’ll make me all the more effective,” I doubt you’d get very far. Why not just say, “I’ve done my homework and know quite a bit as a layman, but would love to hear more about it from the inside.”
I’d hire you if you did that!!
Thanks again for a thoughtful piece.
Arjun: I’ll check out that piece – thx!
Glen/Eric: good points. To be fair to them they may have just thought I’m not right for them, or to be blunt, a bad speaker, and the reason they chose the other way might have nothing to do with their choice.
And further, I’ve compressed things down quite a bit to fit into the blog post. So Eric’s point about my lame answer is on the money, even if it’s not exactly how I handled the situation in the actual conversation.
Cool – thanks for the thoughts.
haha, too funny, but WAY too common re: your phone conversation.
Great points about how we have to step out of our comfort zone and take risks to really take ourselves to the next level. Gives us something to think about in our personal lives as well, thanks!
Not lame, Scott. Just a case of the folks who need you the most likely being the most resistant in the early stages, so perhaps the more “traditional” you sound early on, the better your chances. Mount the Trojan Horse and take them by surprise later.
Obviously we need creative people, the questions I have are: what happens if a creative person is in an inflexible organization, is it possible to buy or sell ideas?. For the first I have no clear answer to the second NO (outright). Creativity is not programmable, takes place in the heart of the person who has the idea!
The motivation for creativity, I would say it’s more intrínsico.
Directors, managers, heads etc. The world is changing and not by traditional institutions. , is changing by people who blindly believe in creating creative environments.
Creativity does not know where or how it occurs. What is certain is that environments with lots of hierarchy will broke creativity.
The handling of error is the door of creativity, obviously with some limits. If you want creativity get out of the routine.
To conclude, creativity is NOT collective is individual. What is collective is implementing the idea.
I didn’t know that about the cows. That’s really interesting.
I just went through something similar in my class this week. I was showing attendees the new version of their system. They want to keep what they like but not what they don’t. They only like the innovation that suits them–not all of it. I find it hard to break down that mentality in “old school” organizations. I suspect that manufacturing is one of them.