How to Stifle the Wisdom of the Masses

March 28, 2007 at 11:37 am | Posted in knowledge management, social software | Leave a comment

Great blog post from Don Cohen about the importance of letting innovation flourish at all levels of the organization and the tendency of business to stifle it to save face and avoid admitting there are things that don’t go according to plan. He writes about a consulting company where employees took it upon themselves to create a knowledge harvesting system and even won a big contract because of it, but the executives didn’t want the case study published.

I think the fiction he wanted to maintain—that all decisions are carefully deliberated at the top and carried out by those below, that nothing happens by accident—is a damaging one. To the extent that leaders tend to believe it, it stops them from seeking and learning from the innovative ideas and practices that bubble up in odd corners of their organizations. To the extent that they present themselves as the sole source of company wisdom, they stifle the creativity of the people who work for them. (Why bother if leaders won’t listen and then take credit for ideas that survive in spite of their opposition?)

By way of contrast, I think of a story from the early days of Hewlett-Packard. David Packard responded to an engineer who had disregarded an order to stop working on technology that turned into a successful product by calling a meeting of engineers and presenting him with a medal for “extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering duty.”

This organization was very lucky that a few consultants took it upon themselves to bring the wisdom of the masses forward. I doubt they will be lucky enough to have it happen again.

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