Not Building a Wall But Making a Brick

This week I really enjoyed R. Toby Greenwalt’s article called It’s All Around You: Creating a Culture of Innovation and his discussion of how we tend to mythologize the lone innovator at risk of ignoring the ideas that are springing from the trenches. Instead, we should strive to create a comprehensive culture of innovation in our organizations where everyone is worthy of having their ideas take up the same space at the table or on the whiteboard or on the WordPress blog. The inevitable difficulty I encounter is not reading and absorbing this argument, but how to turn it into something tangible on an organizational level. Yeah, that sounds good, but how do you do it? Does this need to come from the person at the top? An underdog at the bottom? A whole group of people that somehow come together and say “it’s time to make some changes, let’s go innovate!” How to these conversations get started? How do we, as Greenwalt suggests, “create a collective brain” when our brains don’t think in the same ways?

Well, that might be just the ticket…

For fun I went to the link that was posted in Greenwalt’s article notes to Oblique Strategies — the “creativity dilemma” prompt generator website. From the website, it says:
“Oblique strategies is a set of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt used to break deadlocks in creative situations. Each card contains a (sometimes cryptic) remark that can help you resolve a creative dilemma. Whenever you’re stuck you draw a card and ponder how it applies to your situation.”

I clicked the refresh button. “Cluster analysis”. Hmm. Clicked it again. “Think – think outside – think inside – the work.” Hmm. Clicked it again. “Trust in the you of now.” Hmm. “Tape your mouth.” Uh. What? “Question the heroic approach.” Oh, this is starting to get good. “How would you explain this to your parents?” “Look at the order in which you do things.” “Make a list of everything you might do and do the last thing on the list.” “Do we need holes?”

It was an interesting exercise, to say the least.

But it did get me thinking about the point of doing it.

I kept clicking through the prompts, smiling at some, pondering others, until I stopped and stared.

The screen said simply: “Not building a wall but making a brick.”

I think that answers my previous question about how an organizations stumble and make mistakes because they think they have to suddenly become a gold-standard, innovation powerhouse overnight. They aren’t and they won’t and to think otherwise would be unrealistic. A library that has never built a wall before can’t build one without bricks. But it can make thoughtful, purposeful, small changes, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other, each brick placed one on top of the next on top of the next and so on to create the wall. Simple, flexible, collaborative approaches help us to make bricks (for example, Greenwalt suggests doing little things like simply placing a whiteboard in a well-traveled staff space). Sharing the materials for mixing help us to make bricks. Creating organizational structure that provides strong and lasting mortar between bricks (and substances for removing it if a brick isn’t working) help us to make bricks. Trusting that, over time, our wall might change shape or design or height or length but that this is OKAY and may actually make our wall better, helps us to make bricks. Recognizing that someone may make a lot of bricks and someone might make one and that both people have unique value to your organization, helps us to make bricks.

Is there hidden danger in this building a wall vs. making bricks approach? Thinking “okay, so this huge change isn’t going to happen all today, it’s going to happen through lots of little changes”, does that make us complacent? Neglectful of real change, real innovation if we think that there’s so much to do so let’s put it off for tomorrow? Does it make it easier to procrastinate, make excuses, keep playing Devil’s Advocate? Maybe, maybe not. As long as we are able to somehow measure our progress, I say let’s just keep making bricks day by day by day. And before you know it, we’ll be viewing LibraryLand from the top of our wall.



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