Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Creativity causes lost in bureaucracy

Why do creative people get lost in bureaucracy?

In another column, you made a profound statement to a young college graduate starting out. You were talking about what companies value, and you said, "They also value vision and unbridled creativity that knows no rules -- but only in people who aren't full-time employees. Employees who do that get fired or buried in the bureaucracy."

I wish I had heard that comment a long time ago. I am nearing retirement. I'm from the "old school," and I've worked for one company my entire career. I've been fortunate to have multiple careers inside this company from finance to HR to sales to IT. During that time I've introduced several new ideas and concepts that earned the company multi-millions of dollars, some of which totally changed how we do business.

You're absolutely correct that the vision and unbridled creativity I've brought to the company has gotten me buried in the bureaucracy. I know from personal experience that you're correct in what you say, but before I become a total cynic, can you tell me why you are correct?

It can take an entire career to realize that bigger companies don't often support creativity. I was fortunate to learn that when I was relatively young. That's why I'd never work for a company again. I will always run my own business.

Now, that seems contradictory since I offer advice about job hunting and hiring. But remember that it takes a certain kind of personality and motivation to run one's own business and a different kind to work for a company. It's a matter of preference and disposition. One of the main reasons I'd never work for anyone but myself is that I revel in being creative and in delivering value. I hate following rules, and I don't like being ignored or pigeonholed. Taking risks is important to me, and I won't let a company restrict my choices because it doesn't want to accept the same risks.

That said, let's get to your question. Why do companies pay "outsiders" handsomely for rule-breaking creativity but scorn their own employees for it? I believe it's because consultants and outsiders don't have to be controlled: They can be paid and dispensed with quickly when the company has what it wants.

It's not so with employees. Employees must be recognized, nurtured, promoted, and given substantial control (and money) if they are to keep producing brilliant ideas and work. (Otherwise, they'll leave.) Many corporations (and other kinds of organizations, too) are not good at dealing with those creative beings. Creative people cause trouble. They need systems to be changed to accommodate their new ideas. They expect business strategies to evolve along with their creativity. Most companies don't operate that way. They don't like the upstart (no matter how creative he or she is). They like "the company man and woman." They like the normal workers who don't make waves.

Creative people live on the edge of the curve. They're different. Corporate bodies operate best within the fat hump of the productivity curve. They thrive on the mediocre; on "what's good enough." The best companies profit from mediocrity, but they're efficient about it. However, this typically requires "burying" the creative people, so the "cows" can keep chewing the corporate cud. (I discuss cows in my book. They're the 80 percent of people who are easily led by management.) That's how companies make money. I don't mean to gratuitously disparage corporate business, but the system just doesn't promote creativity very well.

Don't become cynical because of your experience. You have learned much, and you have created much, too. You may be near retirement, but in my opinion that means you can take more freedom and do what you want. You can become a hired gun -- a creative hired gun. You can teach others, if you take the time to formulate what you've learned so it's teachable. Or, you can put together a business plan and launch your own business. (See Trading your job for venture funding.) In other words, your next careers are waiting, if you want them.

A very smart boss of mine warned that I'd have many careers in my life. What a wonderful incitement that was to a personal career riot. I've enjoyed the ruckus all my life. Don't think yours is over; let it start. I wish you the best, and I encourage you to create it.

N i c k C o r c o d i l o s

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