To Reinvent, Recruit The Rebels

June 7, 2009

History is rife with stories of how people bursting with creativity were forced to take traditional safe jobs in deadening organizations while they toiled at creative pursuits on the side.

Early American writer Nathanial Hawthorne was a customs agent. The ultra creative Franz Kafka worked for insurance companies. I had a relative who became one of Holland’s greatest regional writers, but spent his entire life working as  an office manager. He would get up at 4 am each day to write before he went to work.

This imperative to take a safe but boring job popped into my head during a recent discussion with someone who was tasked with reinventing a business operation that has been running sleepily in well-grooved tracks for some time.

My friend knew his industry very well, and was a good analyst, so could see what was needed to put some life back into the organization, and revive the business.

But he couldn’t figure out how to make the conversion. The organization was operating in the creative field but had long ago lost its creativity. Working there had become an  annuity job for most of the people in it, providing them with a very nice life, even though they knew the business wasn’t working.

They had made the choice: Shelve their innate creativity, keep their mouths shut, and let the place lumber along.  This is not an unfamiliar situation. The rise of entrepreneurship aside, society generally encourages us to take the “safe” steady job that provides us with a good consumer-oriented life.

My friend correctly deduced that as an outsider, he had to find some champions from within the company to make change happen. But it was clear that those champions were not going to be among the central management who had a strong incentive to maintain the status quo.  So where would he find them?

Find the secret rebels, I said. And let them do their thing.

All organizations have rebels, but the organizational imperative is to usually kill them, or at least neutralize them so they don’t harm the smooth running of the operational machinery. Over time organizations can form antibodies – conventional thinking, a unique language, a socially-imposed groupthink – with a sole purpose of destroying anything that upsets the system.

So the rebels usually hide, sometimes quietly nurturing their creativity in their outside world. I’m convinced this is one reason for the rise of social networking – it allows people to express their creativity. Online, everyone can reinvent themselves.

In the 21st century no organization can remain content to operate in familiar grooves that have become ruts.  Change is the norm today, and if you don’t sieze it and work with it, you probably won’t survive.

So, since your organizational life may depend on it, you might want to make an extra effort to find those secret rebels. Then let them apply their creativity inside instead of outside where that creative power is lost to you.