Trivializing concepts like innovation, creativity, and leadership is a cynical way to placate people into thinking they are doing or being something they are not.
Back in my early 20s I was interviewing for a design job. The last person I had to meet was some guy who didn’t even work in the department. He was just being kept in the loop.
In his double-breasted suit, behind an oversized desk, in a tiny windowless office, he asked only one question. “Why should they hire me?”
As I thought of a unique answer to his generic question, I stared at the poster above his head. It was an eagle, sitting on a branch, staring off into the distance. Under the eagle, was the word “LEADERSHIP,” followed by some cliché. The situation was so absurd, I couldn’t take this very serious guy…seriously.
That poster was from a line of business trinkets called Successories. They were hanging everywhere in offices during the 90s, ostensibly to keep people motivated.
The Successory poster that captured the zeitgeist of corporate insincerity best was the one for “DIVERSITY.” It was several hot air balloons floating above their own reflections in a lake, extolling the virtues of being different. I assumed they came with instructions like, “display wherever you need to impress your staff about change while making certain everything stays exactly the same.”
Those posters were more than insipid and corny. They were an insult to anyone of average intelligence. A lone eagle is a terrible metaphor for leadership. Unless your idea of a good boss is someone who spends all day sitting around waiting to pounce on their prey.
There are plenty of positive aspects to the motivation behind motivation. I’m talking about something else. Instead of motivating people to be actively pursuing things like innovation, leadership, diversity etc they’re encouraging them to be inactive and complacent by telling them they’re already all of these things.
Who would do such a thing?
But why would an organization actually discourage the thing they’re openly promoting? Because many of the traits we consider admirable in the business world are counterproductive in organizations that value continuity and predictability to fuel growth.
Inundating people with the same message not only shuts them up, it shuts them down. It makes them passive, almost content. Passive people don’t come up with new things. Passive people don’t want to rock the boat. Passive people don’t bitch about the status quo.
It’s not a conspiracy, most companies aren’t that sophisticated. You could say it’s the side effects of too much of a good thing 🤢, but the end result is what I call devaluing by delusion.
It’s easier to tell people something is innovative than risk letting them figure it out on their own.
The reason this concerns me, especially with innovation, is it’s an objectively positive concept. Innovation should create value and solve a problem. Many businesses do one or the other, not both. Most wouldn’t survive if the problem they address went away. The rest are looking for new ways to repackage the old.
This isn’t just a matter of buzzwords and jargon. Grifters are gonna grift. That’s inevitable. What’s problematic is the conflation of innovation with gimmick, novelty and new for the sake of new…on purpose. That’s because it’s easier to tell people something is innovative than risk letting them figure it out on their own.
Just like that guy in the dinky office. As long as the company let him believe he was a leader, he was less likely to act like one. In his case, it was probably for the best. But for the rest of us, I’d encourage you to consider what might actually happen if you took those posters at their face value.