There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards

I found this lesser known Blockheads track recently.  I hadn’t heard it before:

What a clever lyric!  Ian Dury is now sadly departed, but he sure knew how to bring life to song, through his choice of subject matter and the way he worked out his lyrical content.  We won’t see another like him anytime soon.

The observation is true, though.  There have been some extremely clever people that have plied their art and left work of lasting value, which we remember still.  These days, a lot of those clever, creative people find their way into the corporate setting, because that is one of the few ways to be an artist, of sorts, and not starve to death.  Very clever people often wind up settling in to corporate life, albeit not entirely comfortably.

At some point, even the most independent of creative individuals is going to confront commerce, if for no better reason than they need to survive as an artist.  Even freelance creatives or musical artists eventually wind up hooked up to some commercial organisation or other, in one capacity or another.  There seems no other good way to get their work in front of an audience as powerfully and effectively.  This is where the problems begin.

Unsurprisingly, when remarkably clever, talented, artistic, innovative, inventive or creative people join a corporation, terrible problems can arise.  In some situations, the clever fellows make the mistake of thinking they are the only clever ones in the building and fail to see that there are other clever people around them.  In other cases, people who are not perhaps as clever, fail to recognise and realise the value of the clever people that have joined their organisation.  Both are bad problems.

In Formula One motor racing teams, the working assumption of the most successful teams is that there are always going to be smarter people to hire and learn from.  They know that if the team only has one or two clever designers or engineers, aerodynamicists or suspension specialists, they are at a considerable competitive disadvantage and not protected against the loss of any of them.  As a consequence, the hiring policy tends to be to hire on the basis of what the candidate can teach the rest of the team, not on what the team can teach the applicant.  In a sport that depends on constant, breakthrough innovation for each and every win, they have grown accustomed to attracting and retaining a diversity of skilled, clever, creative and highly original engineers, many of whom are a species of artist, in reality.

Most organisations don’t know how to handle creative and clever people.  They want innovation, recognise that innovation always pays better bottom line dividends than cost cutting and tweaks to process, yet fail to attract, retain, reward and recognise the very people that can bring them those innovations.  Instead, they tend to construct a meritocracy around meddling with and optimising what the company already does.  They can see the value of the fresh and original art, but have no intention of valuing the artists.  Consequently, they forgo the innovations.

There is even a body of literature devoted to solving the problem of “how to manage clever people”.  Here are a couple of example links:

Clever, artistic, creative people are not, in this literature, seen as messianic saviours that bring that rare gift of innovation, to rescue the organisation from certain decline and irrelevance.  Rather, they are seen as a problem to solve, the underlying assumption being that as valuable and clever as these exceptional and scarce people are, the managers and owners (in other words,  those holding the money), are still in charge and are the real clever people, despite their inability to innovate.  They come up with patronising strategies to “manage” the actual clever people and yet maintain control of the direction and decisions of the organisation, while ensuring they reap the lion’s share of the rewards, instead of the people coming up with all the breakthrough ideas and new revenue streams.

How arrogant!  What hubris!  It’s a catastrophic collision!  Is it any wonder that so many large organisations completely lose the ability to reinvent themselves and their products, or to renew their role in the world, as the competitive landscape changes?  They do everything that it’s possible to do to insult and repel people that could really help them.  They are busy killing the geese that lay the golden eggs.

The literature on managing clever people is full of advice about helping the poor innovator to understand their interdependence within the company and to recognise this symbiosis is critical both to the individual and the organisation.  As if the innovator doesn’t already know that.  How patronising!  Clever people hooked to an organisation have already made a Faustian bargain to embrace it, because they have carefully weighed their chances of development and growth both within and outside of the organisation.  They know the trade offs.  Presenting the symbiosis as the best and only solution ignores the other possibilities that may have been close run alternatives.

The managers are told, in the literature, that they will not easily replicate the skills of their cleverest people, without confessing that each one of those people is unique.  What is denied is that while there are other clever people around, the singular direction that an individual can take an organisation in cannot be easily replicated.  You can replace a painter called Claude Monet with one called Jackson Pollock, but Pollock won’t paint like Monet, even though he’s ostensibly a painter too.  Nobody will, except as a rip-off pastiche, lacking any genuine insight or quality.

Managers trying to manage creative, clever people still believe that they can own the intellectual property generated by the creative and write contracts of engagement that way, yet they cannot deny that the knowledge the clever people accumulate is tacit and embedded.  It can’t be separated from the artist.  All you can do is nurture the development of the creative individual and hope that they share their intellectual property with the organisation.

When it comes down to a battle, or departure, retention of the intellectual property, even with the best will in the world, is an utter impossibility.  To recreate what the creative individual can do, or more importantly, what they would have done next, first you would need to become that creative individual and undergo the same training and influences they did, over a lifetime.  Even then, the result would not be identical.  You could not produce the next piece of intellectual property the way the guy that left could.  You’re going to miss him, eventually.

One of the biggest “difficulties” organisations face when managing clever people is that they tend to know their knowledge and their part of the professional networks they create are extremely hard to copy and hence they know their worth.  This is problematic, because the clever people will want to be paid for their value and that’s not how it works in most organisations.  Pay and conditions accrue to the highest tier managers, whose position was not awarded based on their innovative powers or their cleverness.  They got to the executive suite by other means.  Hence, the clever person is frequently remunerated poorly, relative to the value they bring and create.

Managers of clever people get so panicked and hysterical about needing to demonstrate their own value, that they start taking credit for things the clever person in their charge has done, or otherwise engage in ludicrous charades and political posturing, to ensure they are still seen as leadership material, despite their unfavourable comparison to the clever people they manage.  This only serves to make the clever people yet more sceptical about the relevance and value of their assigned leadership.

Worse still, the ordinary, mortal managers tend to give the clever clogs lots of process oriented administrative busy work to do, to ensure they are able to assert their brand of value on the corporation.  Nothing is more tragic than seeing a creative mind in full flight being grounded to fill out time sheets, produce status reports, attend unproductive meetings or produce charts of non-existent progress – progress which was displaced by the sheer dead weight of process.

The value of a disruptive innovator or visionary artist, commissioned to produce something genuinely new, is that they disrupt.  They ask hard questions.  They challenge their patrons and managers.  They interrogate (and it has to be said, sometimes intimidate) the hierarchy and the organisation’s leaders.  It is abundantly obvious to them that titles and privileges are arbitrary and hence meaningless.  What matters to the creative individual is the work itself, getting it done and making it something good.  They don’t have much bandwidth remaining to play political games of one upmanship.

Knowing full well where the real value lies, clever people expect access to the top of the organisation and to be treated as peers, not to be subordinated.  If they don’t get that access, they will conclude, often correctly, that the organisation does not take their work seriously.  In contrast, the patrons of the artists want to be regarded as undeniably “in charge” and don’t welcome what they see as interference, but again, the value of the clever person they have in their organisation is that they need to have open access, precisely so that they can interfere where and when it is most crucial to the innovation.  Leaders that resist this often kiss the innovation goodbye in an instant.

Keeping a clever person in a gilded cage is not the answer either.  They need to be connected to other clever people to achieve their full potential, but not in an interfering, controlling way.  There can be no suggestion of playing one clever bloke off against another.  To the genuine innovator and artist, networking goes way beyond being a social pursuit.  It’s a source of perpetual improvement and the cross fertilisation of bright ideas.  Praise from a designated boss is as nothing, compared to prestigious peer and client recognition.  The quality of the recognition is incredibly important.

When the designated boss attempts to tell a clever person what to do, or to pull rank, this is exceptionally counterproductive, as the innovator usually has their own carefully constructed work programme and the attempt to overrule it is crass and the suggested new direction is probably a direction that the clever person has already considered and rejected, for sound reasons.  Telling the creative artist to “get with the project” and “toe the line” is never going to work.  Neither will appeals to teamwork.  It won’t work, because it’s absurd to think the designated boss knows the work better than the creative, clever person.

Too many patrons and sponsors want to co-opt and own the fruits of clever people without giving them due respect and recognition and most importantly, recognising them financially.  Why would a clever person work under those conditions?  Why would they donate their best work and most valuable ideas to people that think they are only there to be exploited and milked?

More than ever before, competitive advantage lies in the ability to create an economy, artistic works or products driven not by cost efficiencies but by ideas and intellectual know-how, so it’s time to recognise the bearers of these scarce and precious things as worthy of some importance and wealth sharing.  Record companies, managers, agents and gallery owners that abuse their artists are headed for the dinosaur graveyard.  These creative people are the handful of employees whose ideas, knowledge, and skills give them the potential to produce disproportionate value from the resources their organizations make available to them.  However you engage an outstanding talent, if you do, you need to take care of them, not screw them over.

If clever people have one defining characteristic, it is that they do not want to be lead, especially by those whose vision, they feel, is impaired, in the metaphorical sense.  This clearly creates a problem for a leader, as it challenges their very necessity.  A leader must earn the right to lead clever people, not assume it because of the resources they have at their disposal.  The resources are, in fact, the commodity, not the clever people, yet leaders often view it the other way around.  It’s the same with artists and patronage.  The patron always asserts that the artist is the replaceable, generic commodity, whereas the real replaceable piece in the equation is the sponsor’s money.  Clever people know their value, and they expect you to know it too.

Clever people want a high degree of organizational protection and recognition that their ideas are important.  They also demand the freedom to explore and fail.  They expect their leaders to be intellectually on their plane.  If those conditions don’t exist, it’s not very fertile ground for the clever person to thrive in and so they move on.  They have to, to maintain their edge.  This, I am afraid to say, explains why so many record companies and movie studios have failed to grow their talent base.

Some very talented individuals—artists, musicians, and other free agents—can produce remarkable results on their own.  While the organisation may offer resources beyond what the clever person may have available to them personally, any given organisation is not the only source of resources.  The clever person will weigh the cost of battling to secure the resources within the organisation against their many other options for creative fulfilment.  If it’s not worth the candle, they go.  The organisation loses.

If an organization could capture the knowledge embedded in clever people’s minds and networks, all it would need is a better knowledge-management system.  The failure of such systems to capture tacit knowledge is one of the great disappointments of knowledge-management initiatives to date.  There’s a lot more to being clever than documentation of it.  To imagine that you can capture the essence of the unique, clever person in a few documents, presentation and diagrams is one of the stupidest ideas that have ever taken root, yet it is still popularly believed, in many organisations.

In a just world, corporations and sponsors would compete with each other to secure the co-operation and contributions of clever people, but they don’t.  Why?  They don’t because they value status, hierarchy and control over sound business decisions, profits and innovation.  That’s a damning indictment, but it’s true.  Ego trumps greed.

Leaders don’t want to hear what clever people have to say, even and especially when the clever person is right.  That’s why they miss huge business opportunities.  That’s why everyone plays an ultimately stupid and pointless game of lying to each other that complex, brand new, innovative things can be accomplished deterministically, on-schedule, according to plan, within budget, quickly and cheaply.  Everyone participates in the fiction.  The leaders do it because they care about the cost most, not the upside potential of an innovation or new art form, nurtured correctly (which they have no sense to even value accurately) and because clever people are smart enough not to get shot as an honest messenger, when they know leaders don’t want to hear the real and true cost and time involved, or the real risks associated with stepping into uncharted territory.

It’s true that there ain’t half been some clever bastards, but they’ve never had an easy life.  It doesn’t look like that is going to change anytime soon, either.


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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