The toxicity of corporate creative exchange

One of the main reasons micromanagers and decision delayers claim for wanting people come to offices, is the so called creative exchange. Brainstorming and putting funny colored pieces of paper with ideas on cardboards is not only a favorite exercise of middle school teachers trying to have an easy day, but also of of consultants escorting important transformative changes in your company, where the end result is always what everyone else told them beforehand, or middle managers trying to push some policy no one likes, pretending to include everyone.

It might seem obvious that putting a bunch of people in a room with crayons, scissors and sticky notes is not how you solve problems, at least it does fail the grandmother test.

Problem solving looks different and usually start by including the people who might know what you need to solve the problem. And then you might start bounce ideas off one another, but, in real life asking one or two people with some knowledge gets you back on track fairly quickly. Typically you either end up with the next steps, a longer roadmap that just needs to be fleshed out with steps, a change in approach or just the need to learn a few things before pushing forward. Very concrete things, very quickly. In my experience, not even an hour every two weeks with the right people is enough to fuel all the progress and work that is realistic. On one hand it is because you can make communication efficient, if that is your goal, and one of the main ways how this is accomplished is basically by compression. On the other hand there is the usual problem that the people that get things done are busy af.

This is probably also an indicator for identifying corporate creative exchange: Nothing concrete and nothing actionable stems from it. The result will never be "yes right, we will make it happen and X will make sure we have the paperwork in order, but this might take some time". It will always be "we will think about it and then talk it over with someone else" and result in some half-assed compromise, if anything. Just enough for covering one's behind. On the rare occasion that there are any concrete actions, they are for you, not for the person who wanted to foster creative exchange. Also they probably look a lot like their ideas and pretty much different from the suggestions of the people with the actual knowledge of things.

Of course there are some benefits to these leisurely discussions prescribed by the higher ups, because it gives rise to plausible deniability in "excluding people from the discussion", because, well, you had the opportunity. Due to the lack of paper trail, the eternal backwards can claim that "if you are all so smart, why didn't you tell me" and "you had your chance". But obviously this is not a benefits in the large scheme, only in the eyes of people in comfy positions and without skin in any game.

Also it is non-inclusive in a not so subtle manner. Since you include people on a shotgun based approach, the people with the knowledge have to compete with people that just like to hear themselves talk. And most of the time these are not the people who actually have the necessary knowledge. The dilution of knowledge makes it next to impossible to formulate concrete ideas, and I think every reader has had their fair share of internet discussions to attest this.

So, looking at the checklist, this sort of thing

  • is inefficient,
  • unidirectional,
  • not inclusive, and
  • gives rise to plausible deniability.

I think we call such behavioural patterns toxic. It is a proven recipe for bad decisions and making people turn away from your organization. At least the people a rational entity would want to keep.

If you think of your workforce just as commoditized human resources, at least be so honest and do not try to keep up the illusion that they are not. No one is falling for that and in the end, the people willing to put up with that will be more productive than the people who you think you crushed and that find ways to fuck you up in different ways. Unless that paranoia is what makes you feel alive. Then keep micromanaging and pretending.