Break the ruler!

I hear people say “break the rules” all the time, when talking about creativity.  I agree breaking the rules is certainly one of the ways to be creative.  You could argue that if you don’t break some rule somewhere, can it really be creative?

I absolutely believe in breaking the rules. As long as you’re willing to break the ruler, that is.

Let me explain by walking you through what happens in a good many of the brainstorming sessions my fellow Before & After creative thinking coaches and I facilitate.  Typically we distill the best, freshest ideas throughout the session, building our short list, as it were.  At the end of the day we revisit this short list, which if we’ve done our job right, is rather long, and we do a final distillation to get to THE short list, THE action list.

The problem that too often happens is that when distilling to this final list, people often forget to break the ruler that measures these rule-breaking ideas.  The effect is that the freshest new ideas frequently get filtered out in the final screening process.  So much for breaking the rules.

New ideas, by definition, are different.  New ideas, at least the best ones, often redefine the playing field.  But if we don’t redefine the criteria that measures whether an idea is “good” or not, then the final list really can only yield ideas that are acceptable to an old standard.  Arrrrrrh!

What we have to do before we disqualify a new idea, that otherwise feels pretty cool, is ask ourselves, “by applying current criteria might we be losing ideas that are so new that they would cause us to rewrite the criteria.”

So often new ideas don’t make sense in the current scheme of things.  In my book, The Do-it-yourself Lobotomy, one the chapters I had the most fun researching is entitled “Stop making sense.”  I cite the Wright brothers’ huge breakthrough in manned flight, the TV show “60 minutes” and Marvin Gaye’s album “What’s goin’ on,” among other monumental examples of creative thinking, as prime examples of  immense breakthroughs that didn’t make sense in their day.

Did you know the Wright brothers couldn’t find a single captain of American industry to buy their patent for the airplane? They finally sold it in France.  Are you aware that producer Don Hewitt met all kinds of resistance trying to get the network executives to buy the concept for 60 Minutes, now the longest running TV show of all time?  The same kind of resistance met Marvin Gaye’s paradigm-shifting record, “What’s going on.”

In the Wright brother’s case, not a single “visionary leader” in corporate America could see the potential for moving people and goods from city to city via the airplane.  They were clearly using an old ruler.

For 60 Minutes the response was “you can’t put a news show in prime time.”  Old ruler talking.

At Motown, the executives told R&B star Gaye, after listening to the early mixes of his socially conscious record, that protest records were for folkies like Dylan.  They didn’t mention, of course, that this was according to the old ruler.  “What’s goin’ on” went on to sell millions as it elevated R&B to a new place.

If the powers that be at Motown hadn’t finally broken the rules we wouldn’t have had one of the finest records of all time… And without a pioneer like Gaye so many of today’s urban artists might not have the paved road to follow for serious message music.

Copyright Tom Monahan, Before &After, Inc.