Playing with the Rules

I just spent two days in a marathon planning session and was left rattled by a rather unexpected revelation.  Could it be that planning is fun?

If you’d asked me for adjectives to describe a closeted two day weekend with board, committee members and staff, fun probably wouldn’t have made the top ten list of adjectives. The reality however was that it was quite enjoyable. There was spirited discussion, disagreements, and ultimately some breakthrough thinking and productive results.

For me, and perhaps others, it was due in part to what author Jerry Hirshberg calls “creative abrasion”. In his book, The Creative Priority: Putting Innovation to Work in Your Business, Hirshberg stresses that in many organizations and cultures, conflict is viewed as being negative and counterproductive to team spirit and harmony. He suggests that too often everyone edits their real thoughts in order to reduce conflict and maintain harmony. As a result, there is less likelihood of innovation. He suggests that the bureaucratic need for predictability, structure, and conformance, is in fact more likely to be conducive to killing ideas.

While Hirschberg is not suggesting we make conflict a priority for conflict’s sake, he is suggesting it can lead to creative abrasion, original thinking, and innovation. He cautions that it is difficult to implement as it requires a culture that accepts a certain amount of conflict as normal and productive. It also takes courage to manage creative abrasion as one needs to be able to see past the discomfort of conflict to its potential benefits.

While some might find the idea of conflict counterintuitive to a healthy work environment, he also points out that if a workplace is safe for ideas, it’s sure to be safe for people. 

A culture that nurtures creative abrasion is also one where failure is allowed. If failure is okay, risk aversive behavior isn’t a byproduct. For instance, in our planning session, our group felt comfortable taking the risk of discarding the process proposed by the facilitator when it became clear that it simply wasn’t working for some. Playing with, and building on each other’s ideas, the end result was a totally new approach to organizing the resulting strategic plan.  Creative abrasion also occurred because of the different filters and lenses provided by those in the group as well as by combining those with a deep history of the organization with those who were newbies.

In addition to the right culture, Hirshberg suggests we need divergent leadership. As he puts it, sometimes the right person for the job might just be two people.  To ensure creative abrasion, you need to hire people who are different from one another. I learned this years ago working for the City of Niagara Falls when as a new manager I hired a head lifeguard. Instead of seeking someone with skills and thinking different from my own, I hired a young woman who was much like me. Not surprisingly she drove me mad because we were both weak in the same areas. While divergent pairs are still likely to drive each other crazy, if their skills and knowledge are a fit with the job, they will have a better chance of solving the most challenging of problems as well as forming new ideas by combining their different perspectives. 

Even divergent leaders though will need to be careful to question previously formed beliefs and known standpoints or to define the problem without having an already preconceived answer in mind. Hirshberg also stresses the need to step back from the canvas when you are too close to the problem during problem solving sessions. Sometimes not working is the most effective thing you can do to move work forward.  Direct contact with information and research also helps to stimulate the imagination.

Bottom line is that creative abrasion is good, and creative abrasion doesn’t happen by playing by the rules, it happens by playing with the rules.

Posted on 01-17-10

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