Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 23

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All installments in reverse chronological order

Before continuing, I want to expand on something from the previous installment.

I recalled how a solution I'd proposed was rejected outright - not because it wouldn't work, but because I'd skirted The Process:
When we have a business need, we sit around a conference table and apply tools and methods proven to yield desirable results. We use real metrics, not a heap of magical bullshit, and capable executives collaborate to determine the best possible course of action!
I heard the term "collaboration" a lot at CNET, because it was something I was told I lacked. And it's taken years for me to understand this, because, actually, I've always been extremely collaborative.

Chowhound's management was never very hierarchical. While I retained veto power over decisions, I used it as seldom as possible, because I wanted people working behind scenes to feel enfranchised. The problem with treating workers like mindless drones is that, in the end, you're stuck with mindless drones! So things were always collaborative. In fact, Clay was shocked by how much sway even our "lowest" (whatever that even means!) workers had.

I've always loved collaboration in my music and writing careers, as well. Here's how it works: colleagues probe an impasse, hoping to spark a "Eureka" - a clever idea flashing from out of nowhere, giving rise to a contagious sizzle where everyone starts excitedly one-upping and tweaking the idea. "No, wait! What if we do it this way?!?" It's like magic; once the chain reaction starts, there's no limit to what can be achieved. It's pure creativity. This is how human beings transcend their animal nature: great ideas conjured up from nowhere and honed via ecstatic communal riffing.

I love this sort of thing, at least with genuinely creative people. But if someone uncreative joins in, the whole process will crash. They’ll despise the one-upmanship and bluntness, which irritates their egos. By contrast, creative people work beyond ego, focused entirely on the problem at hand. It's a profoundly different perspective.

For corporate (i.e. uncreative) people, the term collaboration means something very different. Eurekas are neither sought nor valued. There's no one-upmanship or blunt tweaking, which can offend (especially when offered by someone from a lower pay scale). Creative collaboration in this setting is viewed as an undisciplined, process-disrupting, authority-disrespecting outburst. It seems thoroughly uncollaborative!

So corporate collaboration is the exact opposite of creative collaboration. It's about pitching in to make your dry, measured, Smithers-ish case for why, say, the font should be a little bigger...and never blinking when your superior flatly rebuffs. It's about everything but hot eurekas and chain reactions.

I was frequently scolded for my poor collaborative skills, which naturally made me try to collaborate even harder. The vicious circle left Clay chronically irked, which I attributed to his (well-deserved) insecurity. But it was more than that. It's that there's a certain unbridgeable chasm between creative and non-creative people. They are almost like two different species.

I'm not sure either is necessarily superior. I noted that successful corporate execs compensate for their lack of creativity via relentlessness. But that dogged persistence is something I, like many flighty creative types, envy. Yes, I'd stuck steadily with Chowhound for nearly a decade, but I was fighting my nature the entire way. I craved fresh eurekas.

A case might be made that creative people compensate for their lack of relentlessness via their inventiveness.

Read the next installment (#24)


Marie Wong said...

Very interesting observations about creative versus noncreative types.

As a non-creative type, at job interviews lately, the question I have become to loathe, is give an example of when you've been creative on the job. My job used to be about regulations, compliance, and keeping lawsuits away. Now after all these years, companies want me to think an original thought? Have a new idea? Maybe they do, unfortunately it isn't my personality.

As a baby boomer whose job history has been conformity and making superiors feel good, I don't have a clue how to be creative, or maybe more importantly, how to sell my ideas. Although in the interviews when I give them my really crazy ideas that of course I've never tried out, their eyes glaze, like oh right. I don't know if it's because I've never implemented the new idea so they don't know how well it would work, or if they thought my ideas were stupid. One won't get that feedback in a job interview.

Yes, I'm relentless. In job interviews I call it persistent. I get things done. But in general I'm too afraid of failure to push a new idea. I don't believe one is rewarded in the corporate world for trying something new and failing.

Jim Leff said...

Wow, such an interesting comment! A few scattershot observations:

"give an example of when you've been creative on the job."

It almost sounds like a trick question, no? Maybe the correct answer is "Sir, I'm paid to NOT be creative....to do my job as competently and as diligently as it can possibly be done."

Hopefully I've shown how different sorts of people have different notions of "creativity". All corporate execs perceive themselves as super creative (remember, Bill Gates thinks his company makes beautiful software). As with "corroboration", they just have weirdly different notions of what the terms mean.

So the idiotic interviewers aren't asking about eureka-style creativity (which may be why their eyes glaze when you cough up that sort of stuff). They probably mean incremental, nose-down solutions not proscribed from above - little cost-cutting, time-saving, efficiency-boosting moves you've quietly come up with in your own personal workflow. And I bet you've got tons of them to talk about!

"I don't have a clue how to be creative, or maybe more importantly, how to sell my ideas"

Hopefully these last two installments have provided perspective on that. Hey, I was HIRED as an "idea" guy....and I couldn't sell my ideas! And ideas are my forte! So long as you choose to work in a corporate environment, there's no reason for regrets on that score. God help you if you ever became a font of creativity in that world!

Moving on....

FWIW I have two tenets of faith:

1. Everyone has the potential for everything.
There are surprisingly many ectomorph bodybuilding champions, acrophobic rock climbers, and short, wimpy dictators. Some things come more naturally to some people, but we all have the full set of stem cells. So you could be creative. It's requires a faculty for "letting", and that's not a move that comes naturally to most people. It can be developed, e.g. by meditation.

2. However you wind up is just fine.
Not everyone needs to be brave, creative, athletic, beautiful, articulate, etc. It takes all kinds. What counts is how you play your cards, not the hand itself.

"I don't believe one is rewarded in the corporate world for trying something new and failing.
If you can get a corporation to actually do something new, when something's actually at stake, that alone is an amazing triumph. If you've reached a point of such power, failure is a relatively easy obstacle.

"In job interviews I call it persistent. I get things done. But in general I'm too afraid of failure to push a new idea
What's wrong with that? If everyone were a new-idea-pusher, where would we be?

As a musician, I frequently meet listeners who say they wish they had talent to be a musical performer. I can't help looking at them in bewilderment. First, why would you opt for this degrading, perilous life if you didn't have some preexisting irresistible compulsion? And, second, can't they see they're by far the more important element in this relationship? I'm just the dancing monkey, but by showing up, and listening deeply, they complete the circle. There's nothing missing. Just yin and yang completing the Tao.

In the movie version of life, it's best to be out front, to be creative, to "go for the glory". But creative people don't have it so good in the real world. It's always a friction-filed uphill battle. Meanwhile, the persistent, competent people are all that holds things together. They're essential! Again, it takes all kinds.

Nenad Bach said...

Creativity under the magnifying glass. Witty, educational, hilarious. I love every word, from the first to the last and painfully agree with everything. You are a great writer Jim. You deserved a success as a nonlegal term (using your concept of "deserved")

Simply Bravo,

Nenad Bach

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