"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Innovation And Creativity In The Workplace

I worked for a company which was proud of the fact that it valued innovation. The President banged on about it every chance he could get.  An Innovation Prize was established and given out to the employee who most demonstrated a particularly innovative and creative spirit.

All well and good up to this point. The problem was that the company’s only client was one of the most deadheaded, impossibly bureaucratic, risk-averse agencies of the United States government. No one in the vast warrens of the Ronald Reagan Building had had a creative thought in their heads for years.  The entire agency model was based on what was called Collaborative Conservatism – a nice way of saying that every new initiative had to be filtered through so many lateral working groups, committees, and issue teams; and so many hierarchical levels, that by the time the final signature was on the Work Order, the project design was little more than a tepid imitation of all that had come before it.

Bureaucracies by their very nature have no creativity.  They are built for self-preservation, personal longevity, tenure, and gradual but sure and steady promotion.  Any really new idea is greeted with suspicion if not hostility. “Who does he think he is?”, the G-12s whisper over their partitions. The only reason one joins such a large, encrusted, and hopelessly inefficient bureaucracy is to get paid on Friday, be left alone, and eventually move up a few grades; so there is little chance of even the palest imitation of a new idea showing up.

Now, this federal agency wasn’t so bad as the District of Columbia DMV – an agency which sent shivers up and down the spine of every resident of the city.  A trip to the downtown offices to resolve a registration or licensing issue was a visit to Purgatory of insolence, incompetence, and pure unadulterated wickedness.  The women behind the glass enjoyed watching people suffer.

A trip to the Inspection Station was even worse. In dark, polluted bays,scores of  bling-wearing, dreadlocked inspection agents wander around in their overalls and Armani glasses doing absolutely nothing.  They jive-talk, fist-bump, and eventually – only after they have taken their good, sweet time – get around to hooking up the exhaust sucker up to your tailpipe and taking a reading.  A final swipe is de rigeur, some gratuitous comment about the bits of snow on the roof, the paint peeling on the hood, a random worn spot on the tires.

So the federal agency with which my company worked was far from the bureaucratic pits.  There actually was some enthusiasm there, particularly among the newcomers who joined because they wanted to do good, help people, or ‘make a difference’.  It didn’t take them long to fall into line, eat at Potbelly’s, gossip, and move official papers up and down the line.

The agency did share one thing in common with the Inspection Station, however. The Cognizant Technical Officer (CTO), the government official overseeing the execution of federal contracts had unchecked power over private contractors.  They harassed, harangued, nitpicked, nickel-and-dimed, threatened, and abused every one of us. The arrogation of power in this cluster of incompetence was limitless. They accounted for every penny.  Every line of the contract was parsed again and again to assure compliance.  If the contract said “The Contractor shall….”, then the Contractor bloody well had to comply.  It made no difference whether the design of the contract was unrealistic, vain, and irrelevant.  Any contractor who suggested even the most minor modification was branded a malcontent; and any sign of flexibility was tantamount to treason.  How could anyone challenge the wisdom of the CTO, the project designers, or the fleet of experts who developed the mission statement?

Most contractors, like my firm, simply went along with the agency.  If the CTO wanted someone fired, we fired them.  If she insisted on expenditures at a stipulated rate, no natural disaster, coup, or mass executions in the beneficiary country could be used as an excuse for not making contractual targets.

What the President of our firm meant when he raised the bar on innovation was being especially creative getting out of messes caused by the cockamamie projects that hit the light of day on Pennsylvania Avenue after months of gestation in the cubes, and cellar offices of the Ronald Reagan Building.

The projects on which we bid were largely determined by Congress, responding to the many lobby groups pressuring them for earmarks.  The Breastfeeding Lobby one of the biggest and most powerful health advocacy groups in the country, hammered away at Congressional staffers until they gave in and millions were invested in poor countries where exclusive breastfeeding was necessary not elective.  The Micronutrient Lobby did the same for Vitamin A and iodine. The pesticide and bed net lobby pursued even first-term Congressman to vote additional billions for malaria control.  It mattered little what recipient countries wanted, needed or valued.  It was no wonder that they were indifferent to the projects, impatient with the flotillas of American experts who stormed their beaches, and totally committed to squirreling away as much as possible in Swiss bank accounts.

So if a Project Director was actually able to devise creative accounting solutions; set up scrims, smoke, and mirrors to make the project look successful; suck up and ass-kiss US government representatives and local Ministry of Health officials, and write a progress report that would satisfy both federal agency and Congress, he was given the Innovation Prize.  There was absolutely nothing innovative involved.  The Project Director was simply being as devious as possible within the letter of the law and the Baroque regulations of the agency.

One of my colleagues took the President at his word and met his challenge to come up with ways to improve office management, no matter how radical.  This was an easy task, because most employees were totally demoralized by the bottom-line ethos which paid them little for long hours and little chance of advancement.  Senior Vice Presidents were under the gun of top management and watched their backs with as much fear and loathing as Kim Jong-un’s lieutenants.  They were the Simon Legrees of the organization, the slave drivers in the bowels of the triremes. The office had recently moved from a civilized, respectful workspace, with ample private offices, meeting rooms, and refreshment areas to an ‘Open Office’ – a maze of airless, noisy, depressing cubicles designed to foster teamwork and collaboration. Individual research on professional topics was discouraged as wasteful and peripheral to the main task of writing proposals, managing contracts, and ‘keeping the client happy”.

My friend suggested the obvious – reconfigure the business model to focus departmental effort, bid only on projects where the chance of winning was high, thereby keeping both profits and morale up.  Designate 1 of ever 10 proposals as “Creative Outliers’. The assembled professional team would put all their innovative and creative skills together and come up with a truly groundbreaking approach to development.  This would burnish the brand image of the firm, known as a Body Shop Salt Mine operation, would win kudos from those few senior officials in the federal government, and help us become the ‘Industry Leader’ that the President always talked about.

You can imagine how far that idea went.  My friend was marginalized and eventually resigned.  The company went back to its tried and true model of flay the slaves until they drop, win 1 out of every 3 proposals, and keep the lights on at night.

Henry Porter, writing in The Guardian (12.14.13) offers some advice on how to make office workers more creative:

So take your eye off the ball for a bit, go for a walk, see friends or simply play. I mess around with a couple of mechanical insects that I hope will one day mate and have babies. Richard Feynman, the charismatic physicist and one of the great teachers and thinkers of the past 100 years, gave his mind a rest from profound deliberation by life drawing, reading biology papers and playing the bongo drums.

I am not sure on which planet Mr. Porter works, but definitely not mine; and most certainly nowhere near the bureaucratic monoliths of Washington, DC.  Playing the bongo drums is exactly what the bureaucrats in the Ronald Reagan Building do all day.  The dreck that comes out of that dismal place has got to be a product of drums, rain dances, and shamanism, for it certainly has nothing to do with intelligence or creativity.

I would like to think that there are creative people in Silicon Valley, Route 128, and Dulles, Virginia – youngsters who are encouraged to risk and who are never censured for failure resulting from risk and innovation.  I know there are creative people in industries which demand it.  Wall Street, for all its shenanigans, is really an innovative place.  Like it or not, those tricky instruments they cook up are really original. Advertisers spend millions to inch market share up by fractions of a percent, and are constantly on the lookout for new products, innovative marketing strategies, and the next big thing.

It is bureaucracies which are not and never will be innovative, nor the contractors who suck their teats.  To increase innovation and creativity requires complete structural reform – the elimination of federal, state, and municipal agencies and turn over their responsibilities to the private sector.  While that transfer is no ipso facto guarantee of efficiency and novelty, the profit motive when unleashed from government interference has always been shown to be a powerful engine of progress.

Forget the bongo drums, the long walks, and painting by a babbling brook.  They won’t help by a long shot.

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