An Underground of Missed Opportunity

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Last Friday I spoke at Medtronic’s Global Technology Forum on the “Politics of Creativity”. I began by commenting how just beneath the surface of organizational “business as usual” there lies an “underground” of missed opportunity. I asked the audience, “Where does one go to find out what’s really happening?” The practice of the Politics of Creativity is about looking at the inhibitors to creativity and innovation that lie just beneath the surface of most organizations.

Chris Argyris of Harvard Business School documents extensively in his book, Overcoming Organizational Defenses how “underground dynamics” arise. What I was not anticipating on Friday was a question from the audience asking, “What advice do you have for us if we are the underground?” The audience was heavily populated with young, robust thinkers, scientists and engineers as well as business liasons, asking great questions about sometimes elusive matters (e.g. “How DO I sustain the creativity I had when I came to the company two years ago?”)

Underground dynamics are more about unspoken and often unrecognized maneuvers and manipulations to gain advantage than about a specific group of people. As Argyris points out, there are underground dynamics even in the Board Room. So perhaps I confused the audience by asking “where do you go to find out what’s really happening”?

In any case, I responded to the question by sharing my conviction that a small group with vision and passion can indeed make a tremendous difference in where a large organization is moving. Over lunch I cited how in the mid 90s a small group in the Finance Dept at Nestle USA was largely responsible for what became a company-wide initiative called “Leadership over the Top,” a program for leadership growth and renewal which was sustained for more than five years. I remain in contact with some of those individuals to this day.

In yesterday’s New York Times Noam Cohen writes a featured article entitled, “The Wiki-Way to the Nomination”. He describes how Barack Obama’s victory as the Democratic nominee is very much a result of “Facebook politics” and compares his success to a “classic internet startup”. He then quotes Obama: “We just had some incredibly creative young people who got involved and what I think we did was give them a lot of latitude to experiment and try new things and put some serious resources into it.” New strategies and accompanying tactics for political influence are very evident in this year’s political contests

I encourage you to read Cohen’s article. He concludes by citing the paradox that one person can make all the difference in leveraging the “wisdom of crowds”. Industry changing behavior is happening! Who would have imagined Radiohead or now Nine Inch Nails giving away their new hits on the Internet?

  • Deary Duffie

    I have had much experience with the notion of “formal vs. informal” organizations. As a young wide-eyed MBA, I quickly learned that going to an organization chart and looking for a person with the appropriate title to help me address my challenge didn’t always work. In fact, they were at times an obstacle.

    My success in the long run was/is based on my ability to build effective relationships with colleagues and clients who are of “like mind”. These relationships share a common attributes of risk-taking, innovation, customer-orientation, and speed-to-market. Many organizational leaders espouse the aforementioned attributes as critical to success but fail to address the organizational values, boundaries and systems preventing the attributes to flourish.

  • Jack Johnston

    There are two critical elements to identifying and connecting with the “underground”: questioning and listening. This contention is based on my experiences with entering new organizational environments, particularly with scientists and engineers. Asking people to tell you about what excites them, where they get their creative energy from, how do they get their boundaries pushed, can draw people out and help them think more consciously about where are the centers of creative power and who else is connected to them. Listening to the answers can help you identify ways you might effectively connect with the individual and with these critical networks within your organization.

  • I fear that most of us simply don’t take the time to listen as we should, undergound or otherwise. Again and again I encounter leaders who are more concerned about “better communication” (which too readily is equated with how can we drive this message into the organization), than listening. It’s that DRIVE piece that I think causes a lot of the most valuable information and insight to go underground.

  • Good words.

  • Thanks, Necia!