Employees at Mid-Continent Refinery [ca. 1943 Tulsa, OK (LOC). By John Vachon]

Forrest ChristianManaging Leave a Comment

What makes a company creative and innovative? Art Kleiner, an editor and oft writer for Booz & Company’s strategy+business magazine, makes a pretty bold assertion about this in his book on Core Group Theory, the idea that organizations exist really to serve a small set of folks who are the real “stakeholders” in every conversation. For Kleiner, if these people can’t hold real conversations with Creatives about their work, where the mighty and powerful Core Group member really listens to them, getting any real innovation out of the company will be iffy.

He even puts it out there for some researcher to take up:

Here’s a hypothesis I’d like to see tested by some management researcher sometime. When Core Group people and creative people talk easily together, the organization is innovative. When they don’t, it is not. Many highly creative people are quite happy outside the Core Group, but they are keenly aware of whether the Core Group is listening to them. Moreover, the wider the base of creativity to which the Core Group pays attention, the more overall creativity the organization can muster. Finally, a Core Group that truly understands creativity will demonstrate it by bringing creative people together across boundaries to solve common problems. When that happens, creative people truly can change the world. [Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success by Art Kleiner, pp. 101]

The last part, the ability to bring creatives together across boundaries, is partly a function of what Warren Kinston calls transdisciplinary thinking. It’s pretty hard to maintain because, by definition, it doesn’t fit into a particular domain. People who can do this are normally not seen as “real” [insert name of discipline], as in “yeah, I guess his code is alright but he’s not a real programmer.”

So you’re not going to see a lot of these people happen in the CEO’s office. Ever.

Major Gen. Leslie Groves seemed to pull it off in the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to create the first atomic bomb. He seemed to be able to talk with the “creatives” at Los Alamos (the physicists, chemists, engineers, etc.) and talk the language of the bureaucracy of the Army above him to keep the funding.

This is partly what Wilfred Brown, Managing Director of Glacier Metal Company from 1937 to 1965, called “The Specialist Problem”. How can specialists, who have particular knowledge, give it to the people accountable for getting things done? Too often, from the specialists’ point of view, their advice is ignored or, worse, gets trumped by some idiot in management who thinks he knows something about it.

A friend of mine, who is now a noted bankruptcy attorney out in my part of the world, tells about how as a young lawyer fresh out of law school he learned about this problem. He was working with a senior partner who had decades of experience, doing a lot of the leg work on the cases. One client came in and had “looked this up”. He proceeded to tell my pal that they should do a particular thing.

“I was just out of law school, still stupid, so I reacted politely,” he told me. “‘I will take that into account when we look at options.’ Then the senior partner came in and heard it. ‘That’s bullsh*t and it’s not going to happen. Here’s what we’re going to do….'”

I wonder how many people who read this have ever had a boss who listened to their creative expertise.

Image credit: Employees at Mid-Continent Refinery [ca. 1943 Tulsa, OK]. By John Vachon. Library of Congress collection.

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