If things are feeling desperate, start by avoiding the Killer ‘B’s.

Doing new things is hard. Writing about doing new things, on the other hand… And I am aware of the irony in that statement. Anyway, I recently stumbled across yet another article on managing innovation. This one is all about circumventing politics to get your idea over the line.

In fairness, its argument is coherent enough – and demonstrates a good grasp of common or garden organisational realpolitik. Its core premise is that politics (of the unhealthy variety) are inevitable. In this context, the job for the forward-thinking individual is to identify how to harness said politics to ensure that their agenda emerges victorious from the inevitable fray.

At the heart of this argument is a striking level of nihilism. The article implies that organisational dysfunction is inevitable and unchangeable; the only solution is for the individual to accept the flawed system and learn how to manipulate it to their advantage.

Teaching people how to game a system implicitly reinforces the notion that the system is bigger than those working within it, and is too big to fix. This is wrong.

This is a flawed premise, for three reasons. One, teaching people how to bypass negative politics in this manner only reinforces the dominance of those politics, which can lead to critical agendas being ignored or shouted down. (That axiom about what it takes for evil to triumph is not an exaggeration in some organisational contexts.)

Two, teaching people how to game a system implicitly reinforces the notion that the system is bigger than those working within it, and in any event is too big to fix. This is just plain wrong: all systems are fundamentally mutable.

Three, broken systems drive inefficiency and ineffectiveness in business performance – and therefore need to be fixed, not implicitly endorsed. What is expedient is not always what is right, certainly viewed over the long term.

The challenge for leaders (and wannabe leaders) isn’t to work out how to game their systems. Rather, it is to identify and fix what is fundamentally broken to drive better outcomes for the whole. Instead of simply trying to dominate a damaged organisational ecology, leaders need to ask the difficult questions: why has a culture emerged in which negative politics hold sway? And how do we identify if such a culture is present in our business?

The challenge for leaders (and wannabe leaders) isn’t to work out how to game the system. Rather, it is to identify and fix what is fundamentally broken to drive better outcomes for the whole.

The symptoms that failing cultures present are often striking in their similarity. Indeed, heading for the ‘bypass’ in this way is one of three Killer ‘B’s that we at Corporate Punk routinely encounter amongst organisations who need our help. (The other two are ‘beanbags’ and ‘bigwigs’, as you’ll see below.)

Last year I published a manifesto called Creativity Is Power. It identifies some of the main challenges that leaders face in building creatively effective cultures, and offers advice about how to overcome them. (By ‘creatively effective’ I mean exhibiting an ability to routinely out-think and out-manoeuvre the competition – with all the critical thinking, complex problem solving and agility that this implies.)

Here’s a short extract from the book that describes some of the symptoms that you will likely encounter if cultural dysfunction is ruling your roost – including the Killer ‘B’s themselves. I hope it prompts some nods of recognition – and, perhaps, influences a conversation about how these issues can be tackled at source, rather than simply avoided in the vain hope that they’ll not continue to cause lasting damage.

The full manifesto is available at creativityispower.co.uk.

Organisations don’t wake up one morning and become creatively dysfunctional. The Board of Directors of a company, for example, isn’t happy one day, and then screaming for change and improvement the next. The staff isn’t suddenly running about panicking, shouting at each other and crying in corridors. Working life is rarely like a soap opera. But even if it is, it doesn’t happen without a long lead-up and it doesn’t stay as dramatic for long. There is a spectrum of behaviours and characteristics, of course, but it’s usually a process of steady decline.

In fact, to strangle people’s natural creativity requires a lot of hard work. It is not a question of failing to hire the right person, or of not embracing the latest management fad, or of having the wrong office layout. Creativity dies as a result of more generalised failures in business management that take place over a long period of time. As we shall see, these failures are often borne of issues such as management structure, or operating process, or culture, which undermine people’s emotional ability to bring their best selves to work and positively challenge the status quo. They are never the result of your ad agency failing to deliver the right ‘mood board’.

Creativity dies as a result of more generalised failures in business management that take place over a long period of time.

The symptoms of creative failure

The products and services – the excellent new things that the organisation is supposed to be making and shipping – usually suffer first. At worst, they don’t get made or shipped at all. But, more likely, the making and shipping just follow an unsatisfactory path. The products themselves may lack lustre or be badly conceived. The campaigns or sales initiatives to sell them may be poor. “Our new products,” as one unhappy client told me recently, “don’t so much get launched. They escape.”

As the temperature in the organisation cools, it may start to lose confidence in its own imagination and rely too much on external support. Or if it has lost confidence in said support, fire and rehire. Then it may do the same thing again. Or the organisation may retreat into itself entirely. None of these tendencies is healthy, and they provide only more dysfunction, muddying the waters so that leaders cannot see what has caused what.

Then the Board starts to reject all new initiatives. It doesn’t seem to matter who is pitching it or how the initiative is pitched. At some point, management will usually step in to try to solve the problem. Generally, they get it wrong. The reason they get it wrong is because of the strong prevalence of three myths.

Three management myths

The first is the myth of insufficient ideas, in which leaders declare that everything would be better if the organisation just had more ideas, better ideas, quicker ideas, or ideas that were easier to implement. This is almost always complete nonsense. People usually have perfectly good ideas; it’s the way that the business is being managed that prevents useful ideas becoming useful reality.

The second is the myth of insufficient people. A lot of business leaders will say “We’re not getting value out of our people – there’s something wrong with them. We need more and we need better people who can think differently”. This can be damaging not only in human terms (people being sacked who would have been perfectly capable if only they had been led properly), but it’s also expensive and rarely works.

People usually have perfectly good ideas; it’s the way that the business is being managed that prevents useful ideas becoming useful reality.

The third myth is that a business’s culture is indefinable or intangible, and therefore cannot be changed. Culture in an organisation is nothing more than a collection of stories that the organisation tells itself about what it does, how it does it and why. It is perfectly possible to describe it. You just find and retell those stories, and list them. When we change those stories, we change the culture.

Management-led solutions

Under these misapprehensions, management’s homegrown solutions tend to be of three types. All of them are prone to failure – or at least, equivalent to applying a sticking plaster to a broken leg and wondering why the hobbling and screaming doesn’t stop.

The first solution is one that we at Corporate Punk call ‘hitting the beanbag’. In this route, insufficient ideas is held to be the primary problem. So beanbags get sat on, and new ideas are generated. But because the underlying problems are not being solved, they just remain ideas and they never get executed.

The second solution is ‘heading for the bypass’, wherein people sneak outside the city walls and concoct something new. But when it is dragged inside, it looks like an alien and everyone gathers round to kill it. (Traditional management consultancy also heads for the bypass in a different way, by trying to slash and burn human capital to lower barriers to commercial success. This approach tends to create more pain, and will soon become redundant anyway, as the robots take over the tasks that depend on efficiency.)

The third solution, ‘hiring a bigwig’, involves trying to find a person who will solve the organisation’s problems for it. But such innovators are difficult to find and, without the right context in which to work, they often end up freezing to death or being lynched by the mob.

Beanbag, bypass and bigwig – the killer B’s.

If the help sought is external, in most cases the supplier doesn’t have the energy, the nerve or the expertise to delve deeply enough. They usually employ the killer B’s – just in a more fancy and expensive way. For example, workshops on future vision may get run, trying to create a new dawn. But they usually fail to address underlying problems, and follow only the path of least resistance. So the promised dawn is false, serving only as a distraction and a waste of time and money.

The problems of an uncreative organisation develop over time. So it stands to reason that fixing them will also take time. But as a start, let go of the killer B’s. What you do every day – the habits you develop and the culture you engender – is what will transform your business’s creativity.

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