The role of Power and Politics in Innovation
The dynamics of modern business environment demand that we create and innovate faster and better than our competitors. Companies, and sometimes whole industries can be destroyed in record time due to their inability to innovate. Innovate or die!
Much has been researched, discovered and learned about how organisations can improve their ability to innovate. Many books have been written and whole new organisations have been created which now compete with each other to take their ideas about creative processes into other organisations. Which is very good news.
But what happens when the politics of self-interest come up against the creative process? What happens when ideas threaten egos? Much has been written about the obstacles to innovation. One blockage that gains little attention is the extent to which an organisation's own internal politics can conspire against it and sabotage the creative process. Power, politics and innovation are uneasy bedfellows.
Anyone for Politics?
"Why is it that having great ideas isn't the hard part of innovation? It's the "making them happen" that hurts."
(From: ?What If! by Dave Allan and others)
The team at Politics at Work Ltd are original thinkers, writers and trainers in this challenging area. Their catalogue ofDirty Tricks at Work has identified over 50 political games, which inhibit organisational, team and individual performance, and many of these are worth learning and exploring in the creative context as they can directly undermine our attempts to be innovative.
If we are determined to nurture the creative spirit in our people and provide an organisational climate and environment where innovation and ideas flourish, then we must tackle these political games and negative thinking patterns directly.
Games of Resistance
So what does resistance to creativity and innovation look like and sound like? How will we know it when we experience it? The truth is that resistance in organisations takes many forms but much of it is quite subtle, it is indirect, and sadly much can even be deliberately covert or Machiavellian.
If we explore the myriad of interactions between people in organisations we discover a world of indirect transactions. People are frequently diverted away from clear and direct communication in the mistaken belief that others can't or won't be able to handle the truth. Also, many of us have concerns that voicing our doubts about an idea will be seen as rocking the boat or not being a team player.
Others are concerned that challenging the bosses great new idea (which might well be fundamentally flawed) might be a career decision. Because of this – mostly faulty – assumption, people interact obliquely, politically and indirectly.
There are many repetitive sequences of unhelpful interactions which take place and which we have defined as political games. What follows is a taster from the Politics at Work catalogue of Dirty Tricks at Work. More specifically these are some of the ways in which politics and innovation come into conflict with one another.
If we can learn how to recognise these inhibiting games, tactics and manoeuvres we have taken a big first step to increasing innovation. Further, if we are able to help people learn to counter them effectively, such a discovery would serve to protect the new, fresh, green shoots of ideas. These gems need to be nurtured through the first difficult stages of life if they are to make an impact to the competitive position of the business. These discoveries will start to transform the creative culture of the organisation.
Interesting Idea John…
As the great American business writer Peter Block observed, in its milder forms, resistance can be as simple as declaring that "I thought the ideas in your presentation were really interesting". "Interesting" is the key word here, because it is the word people frequently use when they want to appear supportive and positive about an idea when really they are indirectly resisting. We say "interesting" when asked for feedback and we do not want to reveal our concerns and doubts. "Interesting" can even be code for "your work sucks and will spoil all my plans".
This is the tactic of resisting an idea or suggestion by pretending that the timing just isn't right (and at the same time implying that at some future, unspecified date the timing will be more apposite) "Ben, the only thing wrong with your idea is the timing, come back in the spring and we'll look at it again" Which is usually indirect code for "no way is this idea going any further!" Of course there are times when an idea is a really good one, but the timing really is inappropriate and that to move it forward now would be a mistake. Under these circumstances this is not a game but a genuine interaction. However our research shows that playing Time Bandit is a highly popular tactic for resisting or sabotaging ideas that someone, usually out of political self-interest, does not want to see progressed.
The Creative Cuckoo
When Politics at Work first began research into organisational games, one of the first to be clarified was the Creative Cuckoo. Many of us will have had the misfortune to observe this game first hand. Many more will also have been taken in and exploited by this manoeuvre. We have defined the Creative Cuckoo as "the tactic of stealing credit for the efforts or ideas of another". The upside to this game is that at least the idea does get progressed. The huge downside is the betrayal of trust and damage to integrity, credibility, team working and morale that result. If our organisation has creative cuckoos nesting within it then creativity quickly becomes an endangered and protected species. It is easy to see why people decide to protect their best ideas and compete to ensure that they get the credit for them. Sadly this is time and energy that could and should be directed back into the creative process, not into protectionism.
Tell Me More
This is the tactic of duplicitously resisting a valid suggestion or idea by demanding more research or data, in the hope that the other party will eventually be either distracted or exhausted and either drop the idea, or forget it.
"Come back with a detailed proposal, with a clearly differentiated cost benefit matrix and we'll look at it again." And when they come back, more research is still required, and again, and again…
Of course it is appropriate that before new ideas are acted upon, that they should be researched and tested. It is prudent and appropriate for managers to place boundaries and reigns around the first flush of exhilaration that sweeps a new idea into awareness. Sadly though, this is also a convincing and apparently professional stance, which can often mask an inauthentic position and resistance.
We were recently told the story of someone who once had a manager who so disliked their ideas that he would nit pick and find fault with everything they put forward. This resistance strategy hit new levels of absurdity one day when he had the temerity to ask if "the inverted commas are in the right font" for a new process idea they had put forward. What lurked beneath his resistance was that he had a really clear vision of what he wanted and how he wanted to achieve it, and other people's ideas frequently came into conflict with his. Unfortunately he chose to play a game of Nit Picker rather than communicate directly, fearing perhaps his people would not be able to handle his objections. Faced with this style of resistance perhaps unsurprisingly creativity was initially muffled and then disappeared. Other political strategies for undermining creativity include…
They have seen it all and done it all before, and their experience is so vast and impressive that if they say it is a poor idea and won't work, we are facing an uphill struggle. Their arrogance and ego demands complete acceptance and our capitulation, or else!
The idea is challenged on the scientific level and the resistance takes the form of long winded, confusing, jargon filled explanations which are presented as just being "helpful". Again rather like the Super Parent, they have seen it all before (and have a legion of facts to prove it) and see no new reason to go down a road which has already proved fruitless.
It can't be done, it's impossible, and it won't work. The Naysayer denies that the idea is achievable and they are so convincing that they have even hypnotised themselves into believing it. In 1899 Charles Duell the Director of the US Patents office suggested that the government close the office because everything that could be invented had been invented. Margaret Thatcher believed that a female Prime Minister was unlikely and certainly "not in my lifetime" The Naysayer is naturally resistant to new ideas and possibilities and wants to recruit us to their cause.
This game starts when the most powerful person present has an idea – which everyone immediately knows is terrible – but no one says so, indeed some might even go out of their way to congratulate the boss on their brilliant insight. It is the modern organisational equivalent of the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. The upshot of this is that other ideas resident in people's minds are much less likely to then be articulated because to do so might be interpreted as a challenge to the "Emperor".
Now what if…
By now you will have got the message about how these games undermine the creative spirit in the organisation and if you want to learn more then take a peek at www.politicsatwork.com . Imagine what we could achieve if we could change the culture and environment of the organisation to cut through these inappropriate behaviours into a more productive state.
These extracts are reproduced by kind permission of Politics At Work Ltd