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Doing the Creative Work the Company Can’t: Part 2 - The Rise of the Creativizer

Jeff DeGraff
Jeff DeGraffJeff DeGraff

In most dynastic organizations there is a special role for the highly practiced innovation master who apprentices the novitiate through a “see one, do one, teach one” process of development. Consider Nobel laureates or famous chefs or a rock star physician and the explicit mentoring of unique talent becomes apparent. While most companies focus on the innovation process, creative juggernauts like Apple, Hallmark, Google, Gore and 3M all have placed the selection and well being of these franchise players at the heart of their game plan. Nowhere is this penchant for unique talent more apparent than at the Juilliard School which enjoys an unrivaled reputation for perpetually producing the greatest virtuosos and artists. Sure there is a process but it’s designed to seek out the variability that comes with talent; not to bend it to the middle of the bell curve where normative standards bring homogeneous uniformity.

Like it or not the creative world of Mozart and Michael Jordan is decidedly undemocratic. The pedestrian mistake is to put process above these people for it is precisely their peculiarity and insistence on doing things in an unusual way that makes their work so valuable. The act that you take as a challenge to your authority they see as demonstration of their esprit de corps and an affirmation of their will to succeed. Let’s call these people creativizers because they add creativity to ordinary activities to make them extraordinary. They can be found at all levels of the organization and don’t necessarily have a traditional pedigree of college or class. To find your creativizers look for those people who already know how to get things done by navigating the defenses of your organization’s bureaucracy. They operate just outside the barriers of your sanctum sanctorum where intellectual property lawyers and comptrollers stand guard.

Instead of enlisting these positive deviants who demonstrate a unique combination of skill and will, typical management practices leave little room for them in their institutions which creates an absolute windfall for the entrepreneur who moves their best ideas to the coffee shop or garage. Consider the case of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Both were doctoral students in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University. While most faculty advisors would encourage their young protégés to stay the course and complete their studies Professor Terry Winograd did the extraordinary when he encouraged them to leave the academy and helped them develop their own company. Google may have started in the garage but the founders were anything but gifted amateurs. They were deep domain experts. Look closely at big pharma or aerospace behemoths or top research universities and you will witness the massive mutiny of highly practiced experts. Stupendous talent moves as freely inside-out as it does outside-in.

So why not send your most talented folks as ambassadors to Coffeedom? Because what counts for talent within your organization is substantively different than the capabilities needed to prosper across the street. Tesla was a lousy project manager but a coffee shop prodigy. While it’s generally true that highly collaborative groups have a greater chance of achieving a key goal of innovation, such as a patent, than less collaborative elitist teams, there is mounting evidence that these accomplishments are typically more incremental in their magnitude. In other words, in an effort to get along the highly collaborative group tends to pull toward the middle, mean and mode, and produce non-offensive vanilla flavored innovation.

The Point: Highly practiced and self authorizing creativizers who move innovation through the organization are seen as operating outside of the law and are thwarted by institutional gate keepers

What to Do: First you have to find these folks. They are difficult to spot because they have mastered the art of skulking in the neutral zone between authority and freedom. Remember the coffee shop is their safe house. They are constantly on the move. Their friends resemble the cast of Fellini movie or the freak show at the carnie. Look for a subject that unites this unlikely collection of compatriots and ignites their passions: Poetry slams, glider aircraft, obscure role playing games, conspiracy theories, maker faires and the like. They have common enemies, real and imagined, that inspire irreverence for authority.

An antagonistic inclination is not a predictor of talent or success. Neither is intelligence. Harvard Business School Professor Chris Argyris points out that brilliant people typically haven't had opportunities to consider alternatives that failure affords and therefore have a tendency to fall into reactive blame behavior. So reasonably intelligent will do. Additionally look for those unique individuals who are ambidextrous. That is, they have the range needed to move between the white spaces in project phases, departments and locations, including coffee shops.

The key is observe who is already innovating and to look for evidence of progress and accomplishment. These leaders get things done because they have an existential sense of ownership for their work that drives them. They are free and responsible. You don’t have to motivate them because they are self-authorizing. Listen carefully for a personal sense of destiny that includes the greater good of their cohort. The good news is that they get momentum. The bad news is that don’t respond well to the rah-rah corporate babble or the carrot-and-stick routine. Your mother was right. Just be yourself.

Your ability to enroll these leaders will largely be dependent on two factors. Your trustworthiness and what you have to offer them. They see you as an authority figure and they live to question authority. Start small and build up your street credibility. Learn what ideas they are working on now. Seek out a few limited ways to support them. Give some resources, knock down some barriers or provide political air cover for one of their pet experiments. Show a genuine interest in their point of view. Break down the game film with them to learn what works and doesn’t and why. Don’t bail when things get rough. Be a mensch.