How business plans crush the creative soul

Marissa Orr
Sep 26, 2016 · 5 min read

“Fail to plan, and you plan to fail.” — A business person, most likely.

Planning and lists: heroin for the type A

One day in college I stumbled upon the daily to-do list of my best friend Sara. Without a hint of irony, the very first item, in all caps, read: ‘WAKE UP.’ And yes, thank god, that shit was crossed out. Three times. The enthusiasm conveyed in those 3 lines of thick, blue ink screamed, “I am AWAKE and I am READY to cross out some more shit today!!!”

That moment served as my first of many lessons in how much some people (especially business people), LOVE the feeling of doing something. It doesn’t have to be a particularly important, meaningful, or a useful something. The only requirement is that there is a start and an end which can be written down and subsequently crossed off. There is no greater crack for a type A personality than doing something they said they’d do. And once it’s done, crossing it out on paper is akin to the first drop of heroin hitting the vein.

During the early years of my career, before I understood the science behind creativity and problem solving, I interpreted my co-workers need to do stuff, even when it wasn’t the right stuff, as evidence I was lazy or that there was something inherently wrong with the way I did my job. In the face of their tangible, visible work output, I struggled to articulate the value I was contributing.

At review time, my peers had volumes of stuff they could point to and say, “here’s the plan with all the stuff I said I’d do. I did all of it PLUS this whole list of extra shit!”

My conversations on the other hand, would go something like, “instead of doing the 5 things I said I’d do, I figured out a strategy that makes it unnecessary to do those 5 things in the first place. And if the whole team did it this new way, we’d save 100 man hours AND bring in an extra 10% of revenue.” This was typically met with a polite but frustrated, “that’s great Marissa. But what did you do all quarter?”

With a rising swell of frustration and the familiar knot of anxiety forming in my stomach, I’d wrack my brain for some explanation to convey the value of my work, which usually defied the confines of a bullet point. It took me years before I learned how to communicate my performance more effectively, but there are still occasions the same old “what are you doing” anxiety rears its ugly head. Changing managers is one of those times. The other one, is business planning season.

How business plans kill creativity (and the soul)

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” — said no Type-A ever.

I don’t mean to imply that planning and action items and lists are inherently bad. They help us stay focused, on track, and provide a valuable tool to measure progress. The problem arises when a team lacks a clear vision of success and individuals don’t have a consistent view of performance expectations. In this situation, when people don’t know or agree on what it means to do a good job, doing something becomes the barometer for success. It does not matter how useless the something may be, what matters is how many somethings you did.

It differs slightly by company, but it usually starts at the top, where somethings are born via the business planning process. It begins with a string of meetings where a few folks generate and agree on a bunch of somethings the team should be doing. The somethings get aggregated into a list, with each one assigned to a broader category of somethings, spawning a confusing matrix of boxes, which ladder up to a hierarchy of somethings (usually called ‘pillars’ or ‘workstreams’), and then neatly arranged across a backdrop of dates and primary colors to differentiate which somethings are more important than others.

On a more high-functioning dysfunctional team, success will at least be measured by how many somethings can be crossed off the plan. For the rest of us, a few weeks after its finalized, the business plan will have been forgotten about entirely. It will die a lonely death in the corner of the team’s shared drive, only to be dusted off when someone more important than us becomes curious about what the hell our team does every day.

Not only is this kind of business planning problematic because it’s inefficient and exclusionary, it is also the ultimate death knell of creativity (and its clichéd cousin, innovation), and it’s a fertile ground which breeds politics, rewards self-centeredness, and subverts any attempts to discern true business impact.

If you give a smart, driven, creative person an idea of what business outcome you want to achieve, and the freedom to chart their own path, there’s a good chance they’ll succeed. If you just give them the path to follow and a bunch of somethings to cross out, not only are you setting them up to fail, you also kill a small piece of their soul with every bullet point.

Nurturing creativity is important because it’s how many major business problems are solved, and new lines of business, products, and services are created. It comes from simplicity; doing things differently, often more effectively, usually in less time, and rarely ever in a way that’s linear and neatly captured in a list. If companies are truly serious about keeping a creative and innovative work culture, one that goes beyond the colorful and pithy platitudes which hang on conference room walls, the single most important thing they can do is make sure that each team has a clearly defined vision and individuals understand how to articulate their impact.

So as we enter business planning season, let’s try to not kill the souls of all the creatives within our ranks. The best use of our time together is making sure everyone on the team knows the goal posts and where to kick. Otherwise we’ll be measuring the moves of each offensive play and calling it a win, even when we haven’t scored any goals.

Marissa Orr

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Ex Googler. Ex Facebooker. Truth teller. My book, Lean Out, is now available online and in stores https://amzn.to/2EcUjLP