Category Archives: The Politics of Creativity

The Problem with Politics

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I abhor politics. That’s rather uncomfortable for me to admit. The consequences are substantial. An immediate impact for me is my recurring and persistent resistance to writing. There seems to be a kind of internal power struggle when I try to put pen to paper. Whether real or imagined, I would rather ignore or even deny the forces of power and control that stifle my creative self-expression than risk – what? What is the risk? I fear disruptive if not destructive conflict that threatens to re-align or maybe even redefine me. Politics messes with peoples’ commitments and loyalty. I know I am not alone.
Organizational Politics can be like an inter-personal game of chess

Politics has been banned from my book club. I have been a member of a local men’s book group for more than 15 years. We read diverse fiction and non-fiction. Along with discussing the characters, themes, and worldview in what we read, we inevitably share something of ourselves. One member, in reviewing his concerns of the previous month, shared his disgust with Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s run for the U.S. Presidency. At least one other book club member was offended. After that evening, we agreed via email not to discuss “politics” at book club. I gave my passive consent. But I felt something had been lost. What? Our willingness to respectfully disclose and perhaps debate our respective values and beliefs without self-censoring.

Organizational politics has many faces. From years of leadership consulting, I have repeatedly witnessed the consequences of avoiding discussion and debate. The very act of avoidance is political. The scrubbing and sanitizing of corporate messaging to avoid difficult realities (e.g. yet another round of lay-offs) and inadvertent implications (this is not the end of the down-sizing) recurs on a regular basis. The intent is clear communication. The impact is often further disillusionment and skepticism. The political games are played upward as well as downward in the hierarchy. As one project leader in a Fortune 100 R&D organization stated, “It’s a fine line between telling the truth and keeping a project alive.” He was not being dishonest. He was telling it like it is. Organizational politics prevail just beneath surface in every company.

“Politics is not a dirty word! Politics is the inevitable and necessary consequence of people seeking to establish order and exercise influence.”

Families are also political. We seldom talk about them in terms of power and influence but the political dynamics are prevalent, whether we think of it that way or not. When a child learns to go to her father to request an extended curfew after her mother has already said “no,” (but before her father can confer with her mother), that child is learning how to manipulate the system to her advantage. She is political. In my family of origin, as I and my siblings matured and became more independent, the simple act of a parent asking one of us to say a prayer became political, though no one would name it as such. The request to pray was perhaps an unintended but nevertheless powerful expression of wanting continuing influence and expressed loyalty.

I hate politics. Yet I write about it. And I am thinking more and more about organizational politics. Why? Because I want to identify and name power and influence for what it is wherever people gather. As I write I am becoming more familiar with myself and the power at play in my life, past and present.

Politics is not a dirty word! Politics is an inevitable and necessary consequence of people seeking to establish order and exercise control, hopefully for a greater common good. Leadership that fails to acknowledge political realities casts a shadow that diminishes trust and destroys loyalty. Face it, we’re all political!

Breaking the Rules

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“I love to break rules!” So said Joe Miller, Chief Technology Officer at Corning, in his keynote address at the Industrial Research Institute’s Annual Meetinga few weeks ago. Describing Innovation at Corning, he went on to say, “There is no prescribed process for success.” I work continually with individuals of integrity, embedded in organizations, who realize they need to risk “breaking the rules” to be innovative or simply productive. But it is exceptional to hear a senior executive acknowledge it.

Breaking the rules may be difficult to justify in the moment but is essential to realize the promise of the future.

Despite all the processes and programs on the market to promote innovation, research confirms that “Champions (in innovation) are essentially political actors who are not prepared to abide by organizational rules.”

Leaders deviate from established norms or generally accepted standards in order to realize their mission and accomplish their goals. They break the rules – with integrity.

I am not, of course, referring to being deceitful or dishonest or doing anything illegal. Indeed, compliance in industry is essential for safety and environmental reasons as much as fiscal responsibility. All the same, conscientious individuals in today’s hard-driving high performance organizations know that in order to accomplish innovative breakthroughs they need to break the rules.

There are no rules for rule-breaking. But here are three suggestions to guide you, if you want to go where no one has gone before:

1. Take your time in responding to pressure from others to break the rules; confirm that you are connected to your own best sense of self when blazing a new trail.
2. Whether simply speaking up in a meeting or a much more defining act of defiance, consider the risk you are willing to incur when taking a stand.

3. Strive for internal alignment; over time your decisions and actions should be consistent and congruent with your commitment to a given direction or deeper purpose.

Breaking the rules may be difficult to justify in the moment but is essential to realize the promise of the future. Do you agree?

The Prevalence of Blind Spots

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When it comes to vision, most animals care very little for the substance of things. Their eyes are oriented to movement. No so for human beings. Our eyes are continually filling the field of vision with content, even when it’s not there. The anatomical structure of the human eye causes a blind spot which is filled by the surrounding environment in a way that we may never notice. A simple visual exercise confirms it.

“We spend about one-tenth of our waking hours completely blind.” (A Natural History of Seeing, Simon Ings)

Cultural biases and organizational norms cause blind spots as well. “Taboos” exist which we cannot address because we don’t know they are there. We can’t “see” them, above all, in our own daily environment. The consequences, though often not apparent in the short term, have enduring impact over the course of time and history.

One way to increase our awareness and uncover blind spots is by comparison and contrast. Examining the differences between a microbiology lab and a high energy physics lab (ethnographic study) helps scientific and technical leaders uncover their blind spots. The patterns and practices for generating new knowledge are very different in these labs, for those who have eyes to see.

Just as an ophthalmologist tests visual fields of the eyes, it is possible to check periodically for blind spots of leaders. Paradoxical as it may seem, successful leaders know how to look for their own blind spots as well as those of their organization. Leaders can develop and practice skills to make visible what is invisible. As a result new fields of awareness emerge.

Awareness precedes choice. Energy follows attention

The Power of Perfection

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“If you become widely successful because you do everything right, you’re doomed.”

So said
Clayton Christensen, academic, author, and authority on “disruptive innovation” whom I heard speak last week on the state of healthcare in our nation. While I indeed share many of his concerns about our healthcare system, the above comment at the beginning of his presentation was what loomed in my mind at the time and ever since.

Our drive to “get it right” is fueled by a confusion between excellence and perfection. I can’t tell you how many times I hear talented and highly trained PhD professionals working at the lab bench comment on the potential value of an 80/20% solution. Yet seldom is that deemed adequate, either by research professionals or management. Despite the rhetoric, the “line” doesn’t play. Why?

As individuals we’re reluctant to attend to a root cause – the need we acquired as individuals, somewhere along the way, to be “perfect” in order to be accepted, recognized, loved. I can “hear” clients thinking, “Don’t go psychological on me!” However, such personality traits, multiplied many times over in a given organization, become embedded in the culture. We are more productive when we don’t undermine ourselves and our projects with the unrecognized power of perfection. At least I am.

To know the difference between excellence and perfection is to understand what it means to be human.

Corporate Culture as Primary Driver of Radical Innovation

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A new study about to be published in the Journal of MarketingRadical Innovation Across Nations: The Pre-eminence of Corporate Culture” powerfully reinforces work we launched last summer on “Culture and High Performance in R&D;”. The authors of the new study, Tellis, Prabhu, and Chandy, (Rajesh Chandy is professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota) rigorously document their findings. Their conclusion: corporate culture drives radical innovation in firms around the world much more than metrics more commonly or readily used by management. Their study is based on data from 759 firms across 17 major economies of the world. I encourage you to read it!

While verifying the distinctive importance of corporate culture as a driver of radical innovation, the study does not provide leaders with tangible means of engaging with culture as a leadership practice. In fact, in a footnote to the study, the authors write, “Other firm-level factors such as leadership quality and cross-functional integration may also drive innovation.”. This is about leadership development and collaboration, the work we do in supporting leaders who are not merely working in a corporate culture or through a corporate culture, but on corporate culture.

As Chandy and colleagues note in their study:, “Indeed, corporate culture is a factor that is unique, intangible, sticky, and very difficult to change. … These cultural traits can blind a firm to radical innovations on the frontier. “

Just as an ophthalmologisty tests visual fields of the eyes, we check periodically for blind spots of leaders. Paradoxical as it may seem, successful leaders know how to look for their own blinds spots as well as those of their organization. Many of those blind spots are in the “culture” field of vision. That is where we work!

Clumsy Solutions

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My good friend and colleague, Jack Johnston, loaned me a book to read on vacation this past week. It’s entitled, Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World, Government, Politics and Plural Perceptions.

What’s a “clumsy solution”? My take on it: one that acknowledges and takes into consideration the cultural point of view of any position a group, organization, or nation takes when making decisions or establishing new policy. It’s not nearly as clean and precise as we might wish our positions – any position – might be – but it is much more viable and valuable in today’s complex world.

The editors’ review of cultural theory provides a very accessible framework for assessing the prevalent “social contract” that governs decision-making, whether we are aware of it or not. The various contributors to this volume apply the theory to global issues from climate change to gun control to open internet access. Their study has enormous relevance for anyone concerned with the “politics of creativity” and innovation. The pursuit of innovative solutions must necessarily include rigorous inquiry about the embedded assumptions that are inextricably a part of culture.

I am very cautious about recommending any book that lists at $85.00. (That’s why I borrowed it form Jack.) But I wish both John McCain and Barak Obama would read it. And you too.

Missing the Obvious

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In our eagerness to look below the surface or under the radar to identify inhibitors to high performance, we risk overlooking the obvious.

I admit there is a part of me that is drawn to looking where no one else seems to want to look — curious about what’s not being said, not being heard, not being looked at.

The Politics of Creativity is very much about equipping leaders to make visible the invisible, uncover “undiscussables”, examine the “sacred”, or explore beyond in order to identify inhibitors to high performance.

However, when discussing culture and high performance with R&D; leaders here in the Twin Cities last week, I realize now we emphasized our own bias towards uncovering those aspects of culture which are not obvious, not visible.

There are indeed very tangible and self-evident examples of cultural norms and behaviors. For example, do the men in your organization keep a neck tie behind the door to put on when going to the executive suite? If I asked you to describe some of the differences between the culture of Google and that of IBM you probably would be able to do so without much difficulty. Some of the differences are obvious.

I don’t want to be guilty of missing the obvious while seeking to help others uncover organizational blindspots.

Culture and High Performance

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Today I am working with anticipation and even some excitement on a presentation for a meeting at Cargill later this week with some twenty top leaders of RD&E; from the greater Minneapolis/St.Paul area. We have just concluded with them Phase I of an empirical study on culture and high performance in RD&E; functions. Our working hypothesis is that culture is the most under-utilized lever for creating sustainable high performance in RD&E.;

While much of our learning to date is qualitative, we did ask all participants in the study to complete eight normative statements. The large majority of respondents agreed that “Culture is the main source of sustainable high performance in RD&E.;” In contrast, however, there was a broad distribution in response to the statement, “My RD&E; organization focuses on culture as a means of creating competitive advantage.” The scaled responses of participants indicate that many RD&E; leaders do not focus on culture per se (though those surveyed overwhelmingly agree that it is a main source of sustainable competitive advantage).

We observe the following frequent disposition of RD&E; leaders regarding culture:

  • a belief that culture is a lagging phenomenon, not something that one works on directly
  • an attitude that RD&E; is too deeply embedded in the larger organization to address culture
  • lack of confidence and/or skills to work cultural elements
  • blind spots about the impact of culture to motivate and sustain high performance

Regardless of one’s beliefs about culture, there are perceptions that it is nigh unto impossible to change the culture from the position of leadership in RD&E.; AND, then there are those who are doing it!

We’ll be expanding this study to the Bay Area in California in the fall. And writing a “white paper”. Let’s us know if you’d like to learn more.


Keepers of the Culture

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“Culture-keepers tend to be in the underground.”

That was the comment of a senior scientist in the biotech industry as we concluded an interview with him this afternoon. We are in the midst of our first round of interviews with senior leaders in R&D; concerning the relationship of culture, high performance, and leadership practices. What especially caught my attention today was this leader’s unsolicited use of the phrase “underground”. And that those who compromise the underground are the “culture-keepers”.

“Culture-keepers” may engender thoughts of preservation, conservation, and stasis. Or they might be understood as the reservoir of largely untapped resources, buried beneath layers of bureaucracy and a myriad of processes – sort of like the connective tissue that keeps everything intact despite stress and strains. Either way, culture keepers are the bearers of implicit knowledge that is transferred from generation to generation.

One of the core premises of the Politics of Creativity is that there is indeed an underground of relationships, practices, and even scientific knowledge that generally fails to hit the screen of management. One of the reasons this happens, as the leader we interviewed today added, is that senior managers are rotated through the R&D; function every few years. While management may initiate structural changes or launch other initiatives to optimize innovation and productivity, the culture is seldom affected, unless there is an intentional, trustworthy attempt to engage this “underground”.

This is not about gimmicky programs or subversive tactics but rather about more authentic engagement with people who matter because they are the guts of the R&D; lab. Valuable political skills can be honed which acknowledge the reality of the power structure(s) of the business while honoring the wisdom buried in the organization. But before even thinking about engaging the “underground” one needs to acknowledge that it exists. What prevents or encourages management from doing so? That’s the question I didn’t explore in the interview today. Next time!

Talking Creatively about Culture

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In a recent interview, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, commented, “Nobody works the way we do. The Google culture makes sense if you’re in it, and no sense if you’re not.” In one brief comment, Schmidt captures a principle that leaders are slow to grasp: the culture of an RD&E; organization has more potential for achieving and sustaining competitive advantage than any products, processes, or organizational structures. It is virtually impossible to replicate “culture”.

Talking about culture can be a challenge. Why? Because the vernacular in many organizations does not include words and phrases that adequately describe its very uniqueness. Karin Knorr Cetina in her book, Epistemic Cultures, How the Sciences Make Knowledge, describes in her research how knowledge is generated distinctively in different organizational cultures. In particular, she explores the differences between a molecular biology lab and a high energy physics lab. For example, the latter she describes as “communitarian science”, the former as “individual lab bench science”. Her comparison of these two scientific communities offers many distinctions that prompt new ways of talking about culture, especially in technical organizations.

Week before last I had the opportunity to hear Scott Anthony and Mark Johnson of Innosight (Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School, is the co-founder) speak at the Masters Forum here in Minneapolis on the subject of innovative business models and disruptive innovation. They cited some of the cultural impediments to innovative business models (e.g. “rigid adherence to financial metrics, business rules and norms or fighting against mindset; the illogic of core competencies”). Much of the time leaders fail to address adequately the unique and distinctive characteristics of culture which, for example, define a Google, and that allow innovation to flourish. These cultural elements cannot be benchmarked because they cannot be readily replicated. But that is no reason not to try to describe them.

Sometimes analogies or metaphors help when our language seems limited. Is your organization more like a high energy physics lab or a molecular biology lab? Why? Is it like Google? Or maybe it is more like eBay? How would you describe the differences?