Here’s to the Passionate Creatives

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Apple ad, “Think Different”, 1997

Why did Apple’s ad resonate so well with you? After all, how much time do we spend disagreeing. Admit how happy it can make you when your manager praises you for executing well on an assignment. I know I feel it. No “think different”. More like “think excellence”.

But that Apple ad. It was damn good, wasn’t it? Seemed to reach inside us to something else beside the praise we get for doing an assigned job well. It was celebrating some thing in each of us.

John Hagel recently wrote A Labor Day Manifesto for a New World. The post is a call to action for work that better fits our human nature. Our desire for creating better ways to address problems, in ways that fit our personality, interests and skills. To reach our full potential. We’re not all doing this though.

Hagel terms people whose personalities and drive are based on making situations better than what currently exists as “passionate creatives”. There have always been these types, but recent changes in the global economy and shifting market dynamics (e.g. digital technology rewriting one industry after another) are increasing their importance.

Passionate creatives exist within organizations, and as independent entrepreneurs. For those inside firms, Hagel notes:

They experience deep frustration today with the institutional barriers that have been put in their way as they seek to more effectively achieve their full potential.  They want and need platforms that can help them connect with others and drive performance to new levels.

For many of us, even if we wouldn’t label ourselves “passionate creatives”, the point about frustration resonates. How often have you had an idea, but can’t attention for it, nor resources, nor figure out who else to work with? I’ve had jobs like that in the past. You know some things are not working well, and you can see how to improve the product/delivery/business model. But you can’t make headway on iterating through new possibilities.

Hagel’s manifesto is a great read. I want to hit on two points I take away from it:

  • What is the role of “passionate creativity” in daily work?
  • The gathering of passionate creatives at the edges and the accelerating rate of change in markets

The Role of Passionate Creativity in Work

Very few of us get to live a life of unfettered passionate creativity. The realities of the mundane trump the thrill of the new. And that’s not a fault of the system. If all we did was work on new stuff, there’d be no stability and no scalability. More like mass economic anarchy.

But that’s too heavy handed a look at it. We can be quite productive and help our companies, and careers, while working on tasks that hit our passionate creative sweet spot. A good question to ask is, how much of this passionate creativity infuses our work days?

Work imbued with passionate creativity

Take a look at those two Venn Diagrams. They’re saying different things. The left one says that we all have to execute on tasks assigned by others, or assigned by ourselves for the role we fill. In some of that work, we’ll have the opportunity to reach deeper, to deliver creativity on an activity that animates us. But the primary focus is executing on the plans and processes already in place.

The right one indicates a job which is dominated by passionate creativity. Hagel’s call-to-action is more aligned here. We work primarily on things which stimulate and energize us regularly. But there is a twist to this notion. It doesn’t mean spending one’s time on only starry-eyed big picture thinking, producing little of tangible value for your organization. It includes work by those “who are searching for new and creative ways to do the most ‘routine’ tasks.”

Which model of work are we likely to see arise in the next decade or two? Both. Neither. Yes.

Hagel’s manifesto is not so much a clear-eyed plan for rearranging organizations. Rather, it’s a wake-up call to the corporate world that the nature of work and what employees seek is changing. As he says:

Why will more and more people evolve into passionate creatives? Because we live in a world that is shifting inexorably from an obsession with efficiency to an obsession with learning.  We have come to call this the Big Shift.

In that statement, I draw some conclusions that relate which model above will emerge. First, note that the Big Shift is a shift in “obsessions”. From efficiency to learning. That’s a shift in attention, and in resources. It’s a shift in the dynamics of the supply side of the equation.

What hasn’t shifted is the demand side of the equation. Consumers worldwide still depend on the massive efficiencies that Tayloresque methodologies have brought to our economy.

So there’s the quandary: if we’re all working on things that inflame our passionate creativity, who is minding the massive scalability store?

My sense is that the Venn Diagram on the left is closer to what we’ll see. Enlightened companies will follow the examples set by Google and 3M, encouraging employees to pursue initiatives outside their regular routines. This does a couple things:

  • It provides an outlet for growing passionate creativity on a wider basis
  • Some of those initiatives will turn into full-fledged projects

The second point then lets employees live a life in the right-side Venn Diagram.

Passionate Creatives at the Edges

Another point Hagel makes is that passionate creatives tend to occupy spaces that are “edges”:

Passionate creatives are everywhere among us, but they are not evenly distributed. They tend to gather on the edges where unmet needs intersect with unexploited capabilities.  Edges are fertile seedbeds for innovation.

Reading this, I was struck by how well this fits with the observation that Gary Hamel made. The pace of change in markets is faster now than it ever has been in history. What this means is that Hagel’s edges – unmet needs intersect with unexploited capabilities – will be more frequently found.

Companies need to get better in pivoting to meet changes in their markets. And this keeps CEOs up at night. IBM surveyed global CEOs in 2008, asking them about their view of changes in their markets. The results are eye-opening:

Collectively, CEOs set their organization’s ability to manage change 22 percentage points lower than their expectations for the level of change they will have to manage — a ‘change gap’ that is widening.

A wide ‘change gap’ there, isn’t it? If Hamel identifies the problem companies face, Hagel identifies the types of workers who will make a difference in addressing the problem. The passionate creatives.

The edges are places of opportunity and uncertainty. It’s hard to know what the demand dynamics are, and existing infrastructure and processes don’t address the changing market needs. New alternatives are emerging, it’s time for fresh approaches by existing firms.

Companies are best-served by allowing employees who are attracted to these changes to pursue innovative ways to address them. Why? They get energy. They get an experimenter’s mentality. They get a happier workforce. Let employees exercise some form of self-organization to accomplish this.

The alternative may be incumbent staffers who have fallen into routines, or have reason to protect the status quo. This does not help companies address rising levels of volatility. Free the passionate creatives!

Passionate Creativity Will Fall on a Spectrum

My sense is that work will evolve, over years and decades, to allow people to shift attention to work that energizes them more fully. It will happen on a spectrum, with daily jobs that fall between those two Venn Diagrams above. Society cannot get away from the requirements of predictability, efficiency and scalability. We’re all going to have elements of our jobs that are routine.

I think Hagel’s post is right on though. It will be a slow change where companies integrate the existing passionate creatives more effectively, and develop the passionate creativity in all employees. Companies doing it well will need to celebrated and publicized repeatedly for the value to be understood more widely in the market.Over time, we’ll see the change.

Note what G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón wrote in this recent Business Week article. Passionate creatives like to “follow the challenges”:

Stop and think about the last truly great person who left your organization. First think about what made that employee great. We bet you name such characteristics as action-oriented, driven, passionate, fun, and genuine.

Now think about where that worker went. Chances are, to a position with a perceived promise of putting his or her talents to better use—moving into a role with greater challenges and opportunities to learn and make a difference. It wasn’t about money.

It will happen. Here’s to the passionate creatives.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.


Management by Community

At the Spigit Customer Summit, Gary Hamel described an innovative management approach that has stuck with me. W.L. Gore management has a hands-off approach to managing employees. Each employee is free to say ‘no’ to any request by a colleague. That’s right. Refuse to do something a colleague asks.

Damn, that sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? No more of those annoying requests that drive you insane.

But doesn’t it also sound like a recipe for anarchy? I mean, companies need employees to get specific things done, on a timely basis. It’s what make companies “go”. You get people refusing to do work, things will grind to a standstill.

All true, if the story stopped there.

Say ‘No’ But Watch the Repercussions

The figure below demonstrates the power of community in regulating excessive refusals to do work, or in providing work that is of inferior quality just to get someone off your back:

Mgt by Community

Employees learn community expectations about what constitutes quality work, responsiveness and collaboration. As you see in the graphic, each employee is requested to work on different projects over the course of a year. And true to the W.L. Gore way, an employee can say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to each request.

The kicker is that at year-end, peers will rate the employee’s performance. A normal, conscientious worker will do fine in this scenario. But one who is an underperformer will have trouble hiding from the judgment of peers.

Consider how this maps to current processes:

  • Executives and other employees set direction and launch new initiatives, just like today
  • Employees are expected to contribute to multiple projects during the year, just like today
  • Employees need to work in a collaborative team environment, just like today
  • Peers provide a 360 review of employees, just like today

The biggest difference is the primacy given to the peer feedback. It is the crucial input on performance reviews.

It is the crucial input on performance reviews. This is how individuals internalize expectations that might normally come from a single boss. In the usual work setting, your boss is the final arbiter of your performance. Which means you really need to focus on winning the opinion of just one person.

In management by community, you need to think larger than that. The work everyone does plugs into a larger objective of growth and profitability. By tying one’s performance to the interactions with multiple colleagues versus one, companies like W.L Gore alter the influences on employees’ work. And it has paid off for Gore. As noted in FastCompany recently:

In its 50th-anniversary year, the $2 billion-plus private company is on pace for record revenues and profits, thanks to a number of clever new products with a lot of potential.

Visibility Becomes More Important

One outcome of management by community is that the visibility of one’s work becomes more important than ever. Two reasons for this:

  • You want a record of the work you have done, so others will see it  and be able to find it
  • You need evidence of the work you are doing when you inevitably have to say ‘no’ to someone

Others will know that you are accomplishing things as you deliver your work for projects. But the visibility will be limited to only those involved at that time on that task. You’ll likely email your work to others for use in a project. That includes your boss, which is all you really need usually.

Creating public spaces for the sharing of work allows you to deliver on a specific task to a group of people in the same way. But it also lets others know what you’re doing. Someone who may be rating you down the road may not have been on that specific task. But they are now aware of your work. Think that might help influence their opinion come peer review time? I’d say it will. It also makes you more valuable to others for future work, which is an important aspect of management by community.

The other thing is that you will have to say ‘no’ to people. They will be disappointed, even a bit angry. This is a reality, as there is only so much of you to go around. But what can help mitigate those feelings of rejected “work suitors” is a demonstration that:

It’s not you. It’s me.

You didn’t say ‘no’ to someone because you don’t like them, or the work they need. It’s because you’re just so tied up currently on other things.

Final thought on visibility. One could take this to an extreme of tracking the tasks you’re asked to work on. You then signal whether you are in or out on some sort of online site. Considering that many task requests come in the form of email, perhaps not so farfetched to imagine them being made online.

Better Match between Employees Interests and Their Work

Another aspect of management by community is that employees will tend to associate to projects with work that matches your skills and interests. As you make decisions about what to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to, there will inevitably be a pattern to them. Generally, I’d expect a bias toward ‘yes’ on projects requiring talents matching yours.

This has two upsides and one downside. One upside is that projects get a better mix of diverse skills from people with above average talents for a given task. This is great, as it improves the output of a team.

A second upside is that employee satisfaction rises. Imagine a world in which you got to employ your skills in something bigger than yourself, and that was your primary work. Not everyone gets to do this. Having more control over your career destiny and work that you personally enjoy is a recipe for happier employees.

The downside is that there are always going to be those grunt tasks that need to get done. Having liberated workers who determine that their time is better spent on meatier projects can risk a failure to get the grunt work done. We all know what employees who exhibit these traits are called: prima donnas.

An interesting question is how much the community dings employees who refuse the more menial tasks that make up everyone’s day. If you truly are world-class talented for something and applying those skills for bigger picture work makes everyone’s projects better, I suspect you can get away with it. But suppose your chosen work is of decent quality, but not earth-shattering. Or what you’re good at is in low demand by peers. I think you risk serious prima donna backlash in the community reviews by saying ‘no’ too many times to grunt work.

Employees will have to do a serious self-assessment in such an environment. Which may be one of the best outcomes of management by community.

There is a lot to commend this concept of management by community. It plugs employees much more into the hive mind of the organization than do traditional management models. And it seems to work. Aside from W.L. Gore’s record financials in its 50th year of business, note that the company is consistently ranked as One of the Best Companies to Work For by Fortune Magazine.

Management by community: worth a closer inspection.

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 082809

From the home office in Boston, Massachusetts…

#1: Ten Great Ways to Crush Creativity by @PaulSloane I’ve seen many of these in my work history #innovation

#2: “The kind of mistakes you make define you. The more interesting the mistakes, the more interesting the life.” by @berkun

#3: WSJ: Why Multitaskers Stink at Multitasking “If you think you’re a good multitasker, you most certainly aren’t.”

#4: Forbes: “Their passion is for what they do, not for who they work for” in The Odd Clever People Every Organization Needs

#5: Interesting survey: “Who is the most important living management thinker?” My vote? Gary Hamel

#6: Is engaging customers in social media Enterprise 2.0? Or is it Enterprise Marketing 2.0? Comment on @vzrjvy‘s blog

#7: Jakob Nielsen, guru of web design, provides his take on what makes a good tweet:

#8: Have you heard of this dude? @shitmydadsays tweets funny stuff his father says. Only 21 tweets, but 139k followers.

#9: The Onion – Study: 74% Of Children Tenting Out In Yard Don’t Make It Through The Night Need to let my little ones know

#10: Dear @SantaClaus25: my son Harrison would like Lego City for Christmas. “The whole Lego City” he says, as he watches me type this.

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 081409

From the home office in Taiwan…

#1: Investigating this foreign land, Facebook, now that FriendFeed is to be folded into it. Already had FriendFeed features, so kinda familiar.

#2: Imaginatik CEO @mark_turrell & I (with Spigit) debate the merits of Enterprise 2.0 and innovation: Good stuff

#3: Jeffrey Phillips: The directed, invitational external community model best for generating disruptive innovations #spigit09

#4: Jeffrey Phillips: Great exercise is to purposely build ‘failure projects’. Learn what can go wrong, pick up signals for innovation #spigit09

#5: Reading: Should you do only things that are “strategic”? by @bankervision Small stuff in aggregate much bigger

#6: Great list by Gary Hamel: 25 Stretch Goals for Management (found via @sniukas) #innovation #e20

#7: Microsoft’s SharePoint Thrives in the Recession Microsoft is getting stronger in the #e20 space

#8: What Works: The Web Way vs. The Wave Way by @anildash His take: Google Wave will inspire changes, not *be* the change

#9: Has seeing the time “11:11” on a digital clock ever freaked you out? You’re apparently not alone:

#10: Hiccups tip: Eat a teaspoon of sugar. My Dad taught me that, and it works every time. There must be a scientific explanation.