You ever get a shopping cart that’s got one wonky wheel that keeps pulling you to the right? And you think, “I can endure this.” But then you’re not even out of the produce section before you’re about to kill someone because this damn cart keeps pulling you to the right all the damn time.

People are like that. They are who they are and they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do, even when they say “I swear to god, if you hire me I will NOT be my true self”. They’re always gonna pull themselves towards the right, as it were. It is human nature. It is how they were born. So why do we fight it? Why do we try to jam people into a bell curve that was invented during the industrial revolution for the maximum efficiency of assembly lines and factories? Why don’t we let people be who they are, and along the way, reap the rewards of their natural innovation, creativity, and curiousity?

Well, because for managers, it’s a damn nightmare. Managers want everyone to be more or less the same, because generally Managers are in charge of tasks that are more or less the same. Assembly line tasks that need to be repeated ten thousand million billion times. And the more easily they can swap people in and out, the easier their lives are.

And the C-Suite feels the same way, though for a different reason. People who are all the same because they’re all doing the same task – cogs, in the great business machine, as it were – are significantly less expensive than, say, one-off geniuses, simply due to volume. Lots of people who can do a repetitive task are cheaper than one genius who can do what only she can do, because you can use the cogs’ volume to drive down what they can charge you.

Thus we learn that businesses are actually built to avoid both innovation generally and innovative people particularly for very sound business reasons.

There’s only one problem with this.

Without the innovators, there’s nothing to do. They’re the ones who, because they do let their real true selves flourish, innovate the new thing that creates the company that creates the jobs that keep all those Managers employed. Who can see the economic change that means the company must pivot now – or they’ll just be blithely turning the same screws on the assembly line when the bankruptcy lawyers come to turn off the lights.

And businesses know this. You can’t swing a dead cat at a big conference or a B-school or a book store without hearing people sing the praises of a Steve Jobs, or a Reed Hastings, or a whoever who has figured out the new path to the waterfall this week. They know this. They praise this. They chant this to their employees. Hence the plethora of books about how to build an innovative culture for your business from, by and for CEOs and CMOs, books that advise them how to force a culture of innovation onto employees that they are, at the very same time, forcing to be cogs. It’s madness, right?

In Shine, Chris Barez-Brown has taken a somewhat different approach. He’s not talking to CEOs, really. He’s talking to employees. He’s looking at this from the bottom up and telling the workers, essentially, “screw being a cog. There’s no future in it for you, the company will just wither and die along the way (taking you down with it), and frankly, you’ll be miserable. So you might as well let your freak flag fly and let the chips fall where they may.” This is both commendable and annoying.

The commendable part is that this approach is as better for business as it is for humans. People being their diverse, innovative, true selves, tend to generate more, better and more innovative ideas than, you know, people who are not. Also, perhaps not surprisingly, not pretending to be someone you’re not is significantly better for your mental health than, you know, the other.

The annoying part is not that it makes things difficult for managers (screw them), nor that it takes leverage away from the C-suite (see previous comment). The annoying part is that this approach can be  – and often is – used as an excuse for the kind of selfish callowness that is rampant in creative organizations, an approach which seems to celebrate a kind of narrow minded narcissism that, because it is ultimately inward-looking and not collaborative, ends up doing more harm to them (and their organizations) than good. Not to mention, it’s really fucking annoying.

In the end, however, that’s a risk organizations are going to have to take. And if you find giving your employees the kind of freedom to be themselves results in behaviour that would make even entitled toddlers in a posh day care blush, then fire them and bring in people who will see your offer for what it is – an opportunity to succeed. A messy, iterative, experimental, opportunity to succeed. For as Barez-Brown writes, you sort of don’t have a choice:

Many companies avoid experimentation because they believe there’s a risk to their brand. That is fear-induced rubbish. What they are really scared of is getting things wrong and how that would look.

If the truth is that you hate getting things wrong, you’d better wake up to the twenty-first century, where things happen so fast you don’t have a chance to polish the idea, to test things perfectly, to guarantee that every segment of every demographic is happy with your offer. You need to do it now or you’ll be lost

People are who they are. You can either use that to your advantage, or you can watch someone else figure out how to use it to theirs. Personally, I know which kind of company I’d rather work at. And I have I hunch I know which one you’d rather work at too.


Shine: How to Survive and Thrive at Work by Chris Baréz-Brown was published by Portfolio Penguinin 02/07/2012 – order it from Amazon here, or order from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Please be advised that The Agency Review is an Amazon Associate and as such earns a commission from qualifying purchases

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