Thursday, December 4, 2014

Why hierarchy and innovation rarely mix: A Paean to Creative Nerds

There are thought leaders who can invite and harness the wealth of insight of creative and committed people. People who are creative and committed are often described as nerds. What distinguishes nerds from those reluctant to identify with nerdhood is that they are curious and creative as a matter of course, regardless of external incentives. In other words, their creativity is disinterested in the sense of being motivated to move the mental models forward and expand the frame of reference in their respective fields without reference to partisanship or entrenched tribal norms. They are the innovators who get us thinking, nudge us outside our comfort zone and drive the better side of what is called progress.

Although not inspired by extrinsic rewards, innovators are indeed hampered by disincentives, it should go without saying. Why would anyone disincentivize disinterested creativity and innovation rather than harness it? The only reason would be that it threatens the established order, that it is viewed as subversive to the order, and that the order is hegemonic.

Throughout history, great art was produced by unparalleled artists employed by the ruling class. Yet, the art is easily identified by era, indicating that style innovations were slow to accrue. Today, an exponentially expanding field of possibility is available to potential innovators, yet social structures  reproduce disincentives and thought innovation doesn't keep pace with the increase in available information and platforms to make it world changing. There is a canon that supports innovation-limiting social structures, a Canon of "objectivity" that belies its true nature.

The main value of The Canon resides in its false assurances of control:

  • We set up a list of outcomes, assuming that no better / deeper understanding will emerge in pursuing them that might change them. We set up measures that readily stand in for the outcomes, although pursuing measures as ends can yield perverse effects. 
  • We make a plan according to current knowledge, not in terms of the real world of ever-emerging possibilities.
  • We then outline contingencies, assuming that we can adumbrate the list of relevant determinants of change.
  • We execute a plan and consider deviations remarkable, requiring no end of justification and scrutiny, as if stasis were the norm. 
  • We assign people formal titles and units, and expect their talents not to leak beyond these pre-defined impersonal roles.
  • We break down challenges into discrete parts, and assign various disconnected units to tackle them and then wonder why everyone isn't on the same page. We might even measure the discrete successes of the units assuming that the sum of the parts is equal to the sum of the aggregate (not necessarily a "whole").
  • We evaluate performance against set criteria in a changing landscape, although performance evaluations have been proven not to have any performance-enhancing value except in simple, transactional or mechanical activities. 
Where in the above is room for leveraging potentials? Whence engagement? The closure is almost complete. This perverts the ideal of the enlightenment and turns it on its head.

Nevertheless, the trope of objectivity allows the powerful to maintain control of the story of what should be done, how it should be done, and how well it was done, regardless of what actually happens, which tends to depend on ever shifting natural and cultural contexts. There is little to distinguish innovation from heresy, insubordination or subversion. The status quo is reproduced ad nauseum with nothing given legitimacy to challenge it.

That is not to say all people with high position are officious innovation stiflers. Many are thought leaders. What characterizes them?

They are open to possibility, have a desire to expand thought horizons for the greater good without any extrinsic incentive to do so. They have a keen eye for viable potential and encourage it. Their comfort zone is strong and wide, not because they control, but because they inspire trust and enthusiasm. They have a collegial appreciation of talent, seeing their employees as people with expanding potentials, not as pre-defined competency sets or roles.

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