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The grasshoppers’ revenge

For the second half of the 20th century, business leaders aggressively pursued a strategy based on becoming the most efficient, most productive player in their industry. In an age where many companies were bureaucratic and lazy, out-of-shape competitors were numerous. Those companies who were first or best in advancing the most well-oiled, machine-like structures often enjoyed a distinct competitive advantage. But one can argue that productivity is now more of a commodity. Fat organizations are hardly the norm. The competitive landscape has changed.

When conditions change, strategy must change. And as Peter Drucker warned, so, too, must structure. If the ‘machine model’ is to be replaced, what will replace it?

Many of us believe the answer lies in innovation. Not innovation as technology. Or innovation in the form of walled-off ‘experts’ in a sterile laboratory. But open innovation. Culturally-driven creativity. True entrepreneurial activity. Practical, dynamic innovation, strategic at the core.

It makes sense then that executives and their human resources departments should employ a strategy to compete based on their ability to identify, recruit, hire, train and retain an innovative—more creative—work force. The bad news is that virtually everything businesses and business leaders do in terms of management and corporate leadership, research shows, is the polar opposite of those things they should do to build a creative work force. And the experience of this misalignment is devastating to creative workers.

Creative people are different. They insist upon being different.

In Aesop’s classic fable—The Ant and the Grasshopper—the ant works hard all summer putting up grain for the winter. The grasshopper plays and enjoys the summer. He concentrates on fun and entertainment. Music, wine and love command his attention—he celebrates the summer feasting on the fresh grass that’s freely available.

Winter comes soon enough and the grasshopper finds himself at the ant’s door begging for shelter and food. The ant explains that he barely has enough to get his family through the winter. He enjoyed the lovely music all summer, but he can’t help his friend. The grasshopper freezes to death. And Aesop warns us “It’s better to prepare for the necessities of life.”

It is easy to view creative workers as grasshoppers—unconcerned with the realities of business competition, lacking commitment to the hard work required to compete and having no respect for the waste of unproductive and inefficient play. Unfortunately, accepting this point of view causes a serious conundrum for business leaders in need of innovation. This leader has to adopt a different point of view.

That should be easy. Because the truth is that creative workers are, in fact, ants. When they are engaged, no teams or individuals work harder, less selfishly or more passionately than creative workers. In a sense, they are really /ants/ who think they’re grasshoppers.

But when creative workers are not engaged, no amount of executive proclamations, management control initiatives, structural re-orgs, documented processes, metrics, money, company events, or internal ‘communications’ campaigns will motivate them.

Sticks and carrots don’t work on grasshoppers. Even the fear of death doesn’t motivate them. Because they know a secret– Aesop’s grasshopper would have been fine if he could have just caught a flight to Rio.

When creative workers are not engaged, they will leave; the best and most talented exiting first. And they will start again somewhere else.

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