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October 03, 2006

One Way to Stifle Creativity

Some years back I wrote what I thought was a pretty good little article about the origin of a knowledge group at a well-known consulting company. It told the story of two young guys who thought it might be useful to collect proposals and reports from successful engagements and make them available for research and reuse. When their boss rejected the idea, they went ahead anyway, working on weekends, pulling a couple of discarded computers out of a storeroom, soliciting contributions from people they knew, informally spreading word about the resource they had created. A few months later, a consultant used some of the material they had gathered to win a big contract. Demand increased. The bootleg system was eventually legitimized and grew into a sizeable knowledge center.

The article was never published. The company executive whose approval I needed admitted that the article was accurate but said he didn’t want the public to get the impression that things happen in such an informal, ad hoc way at the company. Although he didn’t say so, I think he was also uncomfortable about casting disobedience in a positive light.

I think the fiction he wanted to maintain—that all decisions are carefully deliberated at the top and carried out by those below, that nothing happens by accident—is a damaging one. To the extent that leaders tend to believe it, it stops them from seeking and learning from the innovative ideas and practices that bubble up in odd corners of their organizations. To the extent that they present themselves as the sole source of company wisdom, they stifle the creativity of the people who work for them. (Why bother if leaders won’t listen and then take credit for ideas that survive in spite of their opposition?)

By way of contrast, I think of a story from the early days of Hewlett-Packard. David Packard responded to an engineer who had disregarded an order to stop working on technology that turned into a successful product by calling a meeting of engineers and presenting him with a medal for “extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering duty.”

Posted by Don Cohen on October 3, 2006 03:26 PM | Permalink

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Good point, Don. Great H-P story.


How do we in leadership development and OD help build organizational cultures that do not stifle bootlegging, skunk works, and other forms of healthy "contempt and defiance?"


Posted by: Terrence Seamon | October 4, 2006 12:02 PM

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