Clones and bad ideas

Businessman production line.

The Play-Doh factory

Colonel Bill DeMarco
Colonel Bill DeMarco

Remember Play-Doh?

If not, Play-Doh is a children’s modelling clay used for arts and crafts projects. It is composed of flour, water, salt, boric acid and mineral oil. First manufactured in Cincinnati, Ohio USA in the 1930s, Play-Doh was repurposed from a failed attempt at wallpaper cleaner.

I love Play-Doh. As a young sculptor and self – appointed artist, I could craft anything with it – including people. My Play-Doh people all tended toward the same colour (usually green), squat, not smart, didn’t move really fast – in fact, they all pretty much looked the same. After all, they were crafted from the same mind, the same material, the same colour, from the same factory – Play-Doh clones.

In the work place, clones exist as well; no Play-Doh required. We simply put ourselves in a position of power and promote those around us who think like us, look like us and act like us. Given enough power and time, we can create an organisation that thinks exactly like we do – no stress and no mess.

The clone domination strategy is binary, simple, scalable, and sustainable; restrict promotion to anyone not made of green Play-Doh. This clone proliferation cycle ensures the tide of bureaucratic inertia continues, status quo dominates, and the stress of change is non-existent – a true clone nirvana.

Bureaucratic inertia: is bad stronger than good?

Is bad stronger than good? That depends on where we stand and our definition of bad.

Bureaucratic inertia is the inevitable tendency of bureaucratic organisations to perpetuate the established procedures and modes – even if they are counterproductive and/or diametrically opposed to established organisational goals. This unchecked growth continues independently of the organisation’s success or failure. Through bureaucratic inertia, organisations tend to take on a life of their own beyond their formal objectives.

Clones thrive in bureaucratic inertia. Rebels defy it. Bureaucratic inertia leads to a love of the status quo, a phobia of new ideas, and a fear of disorganised messes. The opposite of bureaucratic inertia is innovation. Innovation requires a fluid structure, diversity of thought, and creativity.

Innovation inevitably leads to setbacks. As Thomas Edison famously said in his quest of the light bulb – “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” These failures disrupt bureaucratic culture and force leaders to develop plans and strategies for the future. Clones find it difficult to understand why innovation is even required, and struggle to develop a coherent strategy for the future. A bureaucracy attempting to innovate must ask clones to examine unspoken prejudices and to consider new processes that are perceived as inferior to the practices the enterprise holds dear. In short, innovation slows bureaucratic inertia.

Bureaucratic clones focus on routine for very logical reasons. Routine simply works – for the short term. Focusing beyond the present is extremely difficult for a status quo enterprise.

The only thing that enables bad to be stronger than good is a love of the status quo and a cowardliness and lasiness of clones in accepting it.

The paradox

Leaders who recognise bureaucratic inertia as a negative, look to recruit and hire heroic individuals to combat the clones.

We look to hire people who will examine our enterprise and adapt quickly in bringing change. Leadership will seek a hero to rescue the organisation. The hero must adapt to the organisation, read the cues, and adopt to the culture as quickly as possibly in order to achieve success. Many times an enterprise will bring in a heroic leader tasked to “hit the ground running”. The heroic leader usually fails by adapting too quickly and is absorbed by standard bureaucratic assumptions. Given time, the leader is overtaken by the pull and inertia of the bureaucracy and assimilated into the clone nirvana.

The paradox is finding and nurturing rebels. To break the inertia requires patience rather than speed. The organisation must accept failure and disorder to produce relatively few new ideas. A focus on a wrong concept can indeed be catastrophic and results may equate to failed business or even death. Innovation is a high-risk venture. Obviously, the status quo is safe, but over time the organisation will perish through its inability to transform to new realities.

The Rebel Alliance

We simply can’t produce something new, something powerful, something original, by following old industrial-age bureaucratic practices. We have to change the way we have always done things by seeing old concepts in new ways. Something new will feel uncomfortable, unpopular, awkward and wonky, but we must be willing to expend the energy and resources to execute. These concepts shake bureaucratic systems and clones to the core.

Innovation takes a different kind of leader – a rebel of sorts. Clones live and are promoted by following the bureaucratic rules and adhering to the status quo. Rebels follow their own internal compass and don’t always mix well with their clone counterparts. Rebels tend to be self-confident; they can work alone when required and they can also be hard to rein in once set to task. But when a rebel’s energy is channelled properly, they will fight against bureaucratic inertia and usually succeed in successful innovation.

Balancing rebels and clones

On the other hand though, an organisation can’t survive having too many rebels. There is fine balance between rebels and clones in a bureaucracy. Revolutions and rebellions from the Seth Rebellion in 2740 BC to “Colour Revolutions” of the 2000s are fragile when first started, so rebels must be tended to and protected. They must be promoted and teamed with the organisation’s sharpest and most promising status quo leaders. For clones to understand there is a problem and in turn protect and promote rebels is indeed a taunting task demanding introspection and strategy – the very things clones struggle with.

Many new ideas will indeed fail, but it’s not simply about the idea. It is about the alliance between clones and rebels – “champion” building as well as convincing others of the power in new ideas and thus nurturing innovation. In overcoming bureaucratic inertia we find ways to fail more quickly and at a lower cost – it is a cultural thing – making it as simple as possible to innovate by leveraging the strengths of both the clones and the rebels.

Colonel Bill De Marco

Colonel Bill De Marco

Colonel Bill De Marco

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