I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
This poem perfectly illustrates an attitude that I describe as Obsessive Certainty Disorder. Individuals can suffer from it, but where I am seeing it more often is in organisations. While I am being a little cheeky in coining the phrase, I am in no way minimizing the debilitating impact that anxiety disorders like Obsessive-compulsive disorder can have on the lives of individuals suffering from it. One of the reasons I found it apt to create a shared acronym is that Obsessive Certainty Disorder is also linked with anxiety and the need for control. And it, too, has devastating consequences, especially when it comes to organisational responsiveness and innovation, not to mention wellbeing.
Here's the problem: in organisations where this kind of OCD is rampant, they often work very hard to rid the organisation of the very things that would enable creativity, adaptability, and innovation.
For example, organisations value certainty and stability so they stamp out tension, paradox, and risk. They want answers, not questions; compliance and conformity, not curiosity. They optimise for efficiency and thereby remove slack, boredom, and play i.e. the conditions for learning. It is not only innovation that suffers; these conditions also create dehumanising workplaces and burnout.
Leaders say they want transformation, engagement, innovation, creativity, and agility. However, their actions and the environments they create say otherwise i.e. that what they actually value is stability, sameness, safety, certainty, busyness, and consensus. There is no capacity to tolerate ambiguity, no "blurring" allowed where newness can emerge. Questions and ambiguities are treated the same as Billy Collins's poem: tied to chairs and confessions (or easy answers) beaten out of them.
The reality is that creativity is often born in discomfort, i.e., amid tension, boredom, confusion, and ambiguity. Children make up new games when they are bored, employing their imagination to turn ordinary things around them into something new and extraordinary. But in our constantly busy and distracted world, not even children get to be bored anymore. Modern adults can't tolerate the uncomfortable feeling and discomfort of being bored, so we think we're our children a favor when we stick a tablet in their hands to keep them occupied.
We've all become seduced by the need to be constantly distracted or busy, undermining our creativity and sense of meaning. My friend, Jesko von den Steinen, who used to be a clown in Cirque du Soleil says: we need to be "in tune with boredom"; we must see it as a signpost that something new needs to emerge. We need to sit in it, not run away from it.
The cover of the September edition of the Harvard Business Review celebrates curiosity. In a piece on the business case for curiosity, Francesca Gino lists multiple business benefits, including increased innovation, better decision-making, and increased collaboration. Still, she then writes: "In a recent survey I conducted of 520 chief learning officers and chief talent development officers, I found that they often shy away from encouraging curiosity because they believe the company would be harder to manage if people were allowed to explore their own interests. They also believe that disagreements would arise and that making and executing decisions would slow down, raising the cost of doing business".
Curiosity stirs and is stirred by ambiguity. This is something good artists know. Some of the best paintings are ambiguous; they are open to interpretation. Good playwrights play with ambiguity and conscious abstraction. They leave breadcrumbs and innuendo, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. They always leave something for the imagination. Ambiguity and abstraction force the brain to make connections and stimulate curiosity, but in today's business world, we want everything to be practical and clear; we want easy answers.
This is the crux of the problem: Innovation often lies on the other side of messiness – amid ambiguity, uncertainty, tension, and risk. Sometimes it emerges in the presence of the so-called "inappropriate or silly" – in imagination, play, and serendipity. Sometimes the best ideas come to us when we are bored or while daydreaming. We welcome none of these in our serious and sterile (but predictable) work environments.
"We run this company on questions, not answers." ~ Eric Schmidt, Google
It's time that, in a world where most CEOs list innovation as a top priority, they stop ridding their organisations of the conditions where innovation might emerge. Leaders need to adopt the stance of curators, curating contexts where people can be COOL: where they can show up with Courage to ask questions; Openness to unlearn and encounter different perspectives; Observe their context and themselves through new eyes; and practice Lightness through play, imagination, and maybe even a laugh here and there ...