On the Immanent Transgression of Permission
Cuba imports cigars from him.
He once had an awkward moment just to see how it feels.
He is the only man to ever ace a Rorschach test.
He once taught a German Sheppard how to bark in Russian.
Do you recognize any of these lines? They're the product of a brilliant advertising campaign called "The Most Interesting Man in the World" developed by the Dos Equis beer company and the campaign's wildly successful by nearly any measure. As witty and engaging as these commercials are, what I’m interested in exploring is how they came to be and, more importantly, how they can continue to be. I’ll get back to this later.
I’m getting married very soon. I have the incredible honor of writing my own vows and, while I am excited to share my heart publicly with my fiancé, our family, and our closest friends, I also find it a curious social norm. I mean, on how many occasions is such a public display of emotion permissible? And, how often are they accepted—or embraced, even—by those witnessing? Granting my fiancé and me this ability is a collectively-shared, invisible permission. I would suggest that it is the degree to which these permissions exist that enable individuals to access parts of them that otherwise lay suppressed or ignored.
In applying this thought to an organization one could observe how open physical spaces—or areas where cubicles do not exist or exist below eye level—will permit communication to flow differently and, perhaps, more openly than those that are closed-off. Similarly, flat organizations permit employees to interact more freely with executives, whereas, in hierarchical structures they would need to communicate through the chain of command. There are, however, many instances in which a lack of permissions stunt growth, creativity, and innovation. Take, for example, communication between organizational departments. When communication ceases at departmental boundaries, information that should be shared is more likely to be siloed, compartmentalized, and even lost. Such breakdowns in communication could lead to inter-departmental conflict much less the organizations inability to react to an ever-evolving market.
Now, I would like to offer a bold assertion regarding "The Most Interesting Man in the World" campaign. I would suggest that it was a set of permissions that brought the most intersting man in the world to us; permissions that gave creative minds the freedom to consider the characteristics of an extremely interesting man and permissions that granted such an idea the liberty to cycle its way through the organization and to the decision-makers. Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but I will share with you the reason I find this insight so powerful.
While neck deep in research for my master’s thesis, I conducted several interviews with project leaders at a prominent design consultancy. My ambition was to examine the relationship between process and leadership in fostering a culture of innovation. I found a great deal with regards to that relationship, but what I didn’t expect was an idea shared implicitly by many and explicitly by one. While discussing the relationship his team shares with their client, a project leader said,
"Usually I tell our clients that we are not much more creative than you, we just have different types of permissions. You have to play by rules that we don’t. By hiring us, you extend your organization and you get to play by different rules indirectly. So I think it is important to protect that type of thinking... I think at most companies you come up with ideas that are in the early stages and it is very immature and right away is measured with the most rigid matrix they have and, of course, it is not going to make it. So I’m convinced that innovation exists in most companies, but it is killed because there is nothing to support it."
As a researcher and someone interested in helping create organizational wellness, this ideas sounded significant. It’s as though the secret box for successful innovation was mistakenly opened before my eyes and through the glaring light emitted from that box was a scroll that read: create a set of permissions that support innovation. Why don’t other companies create their own set of permissions, relevant to their needs and desires, to support what would otherwise only be accessible vicariously? Would that help sustaining organizational presence?
Some organizations have permissions built directly into their DNA. Other organizations lack permissions, so they rely on those who do to propel them forward. It’s like a supplement for the deficiency the current system is experiencing. How many great ideas are being stifled by organizational deficiencies? How many clients of design consultancies walk away from their experience wondering, "Maybe we can do for ourselves what they helped us achieve?" I should hope they all do and merely lack the understanding and support systems or maybe they are simply too busy keeping things as they are to notice the need for change.
In any case, there are plenty of organizations that understand the added value of supportive permissions. These organizations can always lend a helping hand to organizations that still consider themselves incapable of doing the same.
There is a general assumption that there are people who are creative and those who are not. I would contend that we are all creative. It's just some of us have the permission to believe so.