The usual situation is that idea men constantly pepper everybody in the or- ganization with proposals and memo- randa that are just brief enough to get attention, to intrigue, and to sustain in- terest-but too short to include any re- sponsible suggestions regarding how the whole thing is to be implemented and what’s at stake. In some instances it must actually be inferred that they use novel ideas for their disruptive or their
self-promotional value. To be more specific:
One student of management succes- sion questions whether ideas are al- ways put forth seriously. He suggests that often they may simply be a tacti- cal device to attract attention in order to come first to mind when promo- tions are made. Hence, ideas are a form of “public relations” within the organization.^ it should be pointed out, however,
that something favorable can be said about the relationship of irresponsibil- ity to ideation. The generally effective executive often exhibits what might be called controlled momentary irrespon- sibility. He recognizes that this attitude is virtually necessary for the free play of imagination. But what distinguishes him is his ability to alternate appropri- ately between attitudes of irresponsibil- ity and responsibility. He doesn’t hold to the former for long – only long enough to make himself more productive.
Psychology of the “Creative Type” The fact that a consistently highly cre- ative person is generally irresponsible in the way I have used the term is in part predictable from what is known about the freewheeling fantasies of very young children:
They are extremely creative, as any kindergarten teacher will testify. They have a naive curiosity which stumps parents with questions like: “Why can you see through glass?” “Why is there a hole in a doughnut?” “Why is the grass green?” It is this kind of ques- tioning attitude that produces in them so much creative freshness. Yet the unique posture of their lives is their almost total irresponsibility from blame, work, and the other routine necessities of organized soci- ety. Even the law absolves them from responsibility for their actions. But all sources testify to childrens’ cre- ativity, even Biblical mythology with its assertion about wisdom issuing from “the mouths of babes.” More
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respectable scientific sources have paralleled the integrative mechanism of adult creativity with the childhood thought process that “manifests itself during the preschool period – pos- sibly as early as the appearance of three-word sentences…”^ Clinical psychologists have also illus-
trated what I call the irresponsibility of creative individuals in Rorschach and stroboscopic tests. For example:
One analyst says,”Those who took to the Rorschach like ducks to water, who fantasied and projected fi:eely, even too freely in some cases, or who could per- mit themselves to tamper with the form of the blot as given, gave us our broad- est ranges of movement””‘ In short, they were the least “form-bound,” the least inhibited by the facts of their experi- ence, and hence let their minds explore new, untried, and novel alternatives to existing ways of doing things.
The significance of this finding for the analysis of organizations is pointed up by the observation of another psychol- ogist that “the theoreticians on the other hand do not mind living danger- ously.”̂ The reason is obvious. A theo- retician is not immediately responsible for action. He is perfectly content to live dangerously because he does so only on the conceptual level, where he cannot get hurt. To assume any responsibility for implementation is to risk dangerous actions, and that can be painfully un- comfortable. The safe solution is to steer clear of implementation and ail the dirty work it implies.
The Advice Business It is to be expected, therefore, that today’s most ardent advocates of cre- ativity in business tend to be profes- sional writers, consultants, professors, and often advertising agency executives. Not surprisingly, few of these people have any continuing day-to-day respon- sibility for the difficult task of imple- menting powerful new business ideas of a complex nature in the ordinary type of business organization. Few of them have ever had any responsibility for doing work in the conventional kind of complex operating organization. They are not really practicing business- men in the usual sense. They are literary businessmen. They are the doctors who say,”Do as I say, not as I do,”reminiscent ofthe classic injunction ofthe boxer’s manager, “Get in there and fight. They can’t hurt us.”
The fact that these people are also so often outspoken about the alleged viru- lence of conformity in modern business is not surprising. They can talk this way
because they have seldom had the nerve to expose themselves for any substan- tial length of time to the rigorous discipline of an organization whose prin- cipal task is not talk but ac- tion, not ideas but work.
Impressive sermons are delivered gravely proclaim-
ing the virtues of creativity and the vices of conformity. But so often the authors of these sermons, too, are “outsiders” to the central sector ofthe business com- munity. Thus, the best-known asserters that American industry is some sort of vast quagmire of quivering confor- mity – the men who have tumed the claim into a tiresome cliche-are peo- ple like William H. Whyte, jr., author of The Organization Man,” who is a pro- fessional writer; Sloan Wilson, author of The Man in the Cray Flannel Suit,’ who was a college English professor when he wrote the book; and C. North- cote Parkinson (more on him later), also a professor.
Actually, it is not totally fair to con- demn this gratuitous crusade of consul- tants, writers, professors, and the like. American business appears generally to benefit from their existence. Harm is done, however, when the executive fails to consider that the very role of these men absolves them from managerial responsibility. It is hard to accept un- critically the doleful prophesy that so many U.S. companies are hypnotically following each other in a deadly con- formist march into economic oblivion. It is hard to accept the tantalizing sug- gestion that their salvation lies so easily in creativity and that from this will au- tomatically flow profit-building innova- tion. Perhaps the source of these sug- gestions should be kept in mind.
The Chronic Complainers As I have already said, ideation is not a synonym for innovation, conformity is not its simple antonym, and innovation is not the automatic consequence of “creative thinking.” Indeed, what some people call conformity in business is less related to the lack of abstract creativity than to the lack of responsible action, whether it be the implementation of new or old ideas.
The proof of this is that in most busi- ness organizations, the most continually creative men in the echelons below the executive level-men who are actively discontent with the here and now and
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are full of suggestions about what to do about i t – a r e also generally known as corporate malcontents. They tend to be complaining constantly about the standpat senility ofthe management, about its refusal to see the obvious facts of its own massive inertia. They com- plain about management refusing to do the things that have been suggested to it for years. They often complain that management does not even want cre- ative ideas, that ideas rock the boat (which they do), and that management is interested more in having a smoothly running (or is it smoothly ruining?) organization than in a rapidly forward- vaulting business.
In short, they talk about the company being a festering sore of deadly confor- mity, full of decaying vegetables who systematically oppose new ideas with the old ideologies. And then, of course, they frequently quote their patron saint, William H. Whyte, Jr., with all his mis- informed moralizing and his conjectural evidence about what goes on inside an operating organization. (Whyte’s fanci- ful notions of such operations have re- cently been demolished by the careful studies ofthe veteran student of social organization W. Lloyd Warner in his The Corporation in the Emergent Ameri- can Society.’^)
Why Doors Are Closed The reason the creative malcontent speaks this way is that so often the peo- ple to whom he addresses his flow of ideas do, indeed, after a while, ignore him and tell him to go away. They shut their doors to his endless entreaties; they refuse to hear his ideas any longer. Why? There is a plausible explanation.
The reason the executive so often re- jects new ideas is that he is a busy man whose chief day-in, day-out task is to handle an ongoing stream of problems. He receives an unending flow of ques- tions on which decisions must be made. Constantly he is forced to deal with problems to which solutions are more or less urgent and the answers to which are far from clear-cut. It may seem
splendid to a subordinate to supply his boss with a lot of brilliant new ideas to help him in his job. But advocates of creativity must once and for all under- stand the pressing facts of the execu- tive’s life: Every time an idea is submit- ted to him, it creates more problems for him – and he already has enough.
My colleague. Professor Raymond A. Bauer, has pointed out an instructive example from another field of activity. He notes that many congressmen and senators have the opportunity to have a political science intern assigned to “help” them. However, some congress- men and senators refuse this “help” on the grounds that these interns generate so many ideas that they disrupt the leg- islator’s regular business.
Making Ideas Useful Yet innovation is necessary in business- and innovation begins with somebody’s proposal. What isthe answer for the man with a new idea? I have two thoughts to offer:
1. He must work with the situation as it is. Since the executive is already con- stantly bombarded with problems, there is little wonder that after a while he does not want any more new ideas. The “idea man” must leam to accept this as a fact of life and act accordingly.
2. When he suggests an idea, the re- sponsible procedure is to include at least some minimal indication of what it in- volves in terms of costs, risks, manpower, time, and perhaps even specific people who ought to carry it through. That /5 re- sponsible behavior, because it makes it easier for the executive to evaluate the idea and because it raises fewer problems. That /5 the way creative think- ing will more likely be converted into innovation.
It will be argued, of course, that to saddle the creative individual with the responsibility of spelling out the details of implementation would curb or even throttle his unique talent. This is proba- bly true. But this could be salutary, both for him and for the company. Ideas are useless unless used. The proof of their
value is their implementation. Until then they are in limbo. If the executive’s job pressures mean that an idea seldom gets a good hearing unless it is respon- sibly presented, then the unthrottled and irresponsible creative man is use- less to the company. If an insistence on some responsibility for implemen- tation throttles him, he may produce fewer ideas, but their chances of a judi- cious hearing and therefore of being followed through are greatly improved. The company will benefit by trying the ideas, and the creative man will benefit by getting the satisfaction of knowing he is being listened to. He will not have to be a malcontent any more.
Deciding Factors This is not to suggest that every idea needs a thoroughly documented study before it is mentioned to anyone. Far from it. What is needed will vary from case to case depending on four factors:
The Position or Rank ofthe Idea Orig- inator in the Organization. How “re- sponsible” a man needs to act for an idea to get a hearing clearly depends on his rank.
The powerful chief executive officer can simply instruct subordinates to take and develop one of his ideas. That is enough to give it a hearing and perhaps even implementation. To that extent, talk (5 virtually action. Similarly, the head of a department can do the same thing in his domain. But when the ideas fiow in the opposite direction – upward instead of downward-they are unlikely to fiow unless they are supported by the kind of follow-through 1 have been urging.
The Complexity ofthe Idea. The more complex and involved the implications of an idea, and the more change and rearrangement it may require within the organization or in its present way of doingthings,then obviously the greater is the need to cover the required ground in some responsible fashion when the proposal is presented.
But I do not suggest that the “how to” questions need to be covered as
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thoroughly and carefully as would be required by, say, a large corporation’s executive committee when it finally de- cides whether to implement or drop the suggestion. Such a requirement would be so rigid that it might dry up all ideas because their originators simply would not have the time, competence, or staff help to go to that much effort.
The Nature ofthe Industry. How much supporting detail a subordinate should submit along with his idea ofren de- pends on the industry involved and the intent of the idea.
One reason there is such a high pre- mium put on “creativity” in advertising is because the first requisite of an ad is to get attention. Hence “creativity” fre- quently revolves around the matter of trying to achieve visual or auditory im- pact such that the ad stands out above the constantly expanding stream of ad- vertising noise to which the badgered consumer is subjected. To this extent, in the advertising industry, being “cre- ative” is quite a different thing, by and large, from what it is, say, in the steel in- dustry. Putting an eye patch on the man in the Hathaway shirt is “no sooner said than done.” The idea is virtually syn- onymous with its implementation. But
Many people who are full of ideas simply
do not understand how an organization
must operate to get things done.
in the steel industry, an idea, say, to change the discount structure to en- courage users of cold, rolled sheet steel to place bigger but fewer orders is so full of possible complications and prob- lems that talk is far from being action or even a program for action. To get even a sympathetic first hearing, such an idea needs to be accompanied by a good deal of factual and logical support.
The Attitude and Job ofthe Person to Whom the Idea Is Submitted. Everybody knows that some bosses are more re- ceptive to new ideas than others. Some
are more receptive to extreme novelty than others. The extent of their known receptiveness will in part determine the elaborateness of support a suggested new idea requires at its original stage.
But, equally important, it is essential to recognize that the greater the pres- sures of day-to-day operating responsi- bilities on the executive, the more resis- tance he is likely to have to new ideas. If the operating burden happens to fall on him, his job is to make the present setup work smoothly and well. A new idea re- quires change, and change upsets the smooth (or perhaps faltering) regularity of the present operation on whose ef- fectiveness he is being judged and on which his career future depends. He has very good reason to be extremely care- ful about a new proposal. He needs lots of good risk-reducing reasons before he will look at one very carefully.
What his actual requirements are will also depend on the attitudes of his superiors to risk taking and mistakes. In one company I am famihar with, the two most senior officers have a unique quality of enormous receptivity to nov- elty – sometimes the wilder the pro- posal, the better. The result is that new ideas, no matter how vaguely stated
or extreme, get sym- pathetic and quick hearings throughout all levels of the com- pany. But this is a rare organization for two reasons.
First, the chairman is now about 40 years old. He became president when he was 28, having been selected by his predecessor as the heir apparent when he was about 24. He vaulted quickly from one top job to another, never really having to spend very much time “making good” in the conventional sense in a difficult day-to- day operating job at a low level. Virtu- ally his entire career was one of high- level responsibility where his ideas could be passed down to a corps of sub- ordinates for detailed examination and evaluation. These experiences taught
him the value of wild ideation without his having to risk his rise to the top by seeming to suggest irresponsible projects.
Second, the present president of this same company came in as a vice presi- dent, also at 28, and directly from an ad- vertising agency. His career experiences were similar to the chairman’s.
It is easy for both of these men to be permissive, in part because they have never really had to risk their climb up the hierarchical ladder by seeming to shoot wild. They always had teams of subordinates to check their ideas and willing superiors to listen to them. Any- body who has not had this history or conditioning will find it extremely hard to change once he gets very far up the corporate pecking order.