Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Jaywalker’s Guide to the Galaxy

…With all due respect to Ford Prefect.

This post is actually about innovation in the workplace. While it’s true that only some people prize their careers enough to refer to it in galactic terms, it made a better title and I enjoy the Douglas Adams reference. So there.

I liken innovation, creative thinking, nonconformity and radical new ideas to jaywalking. Institutions and businesses function much like traffic: the rules of the road are designed to keep everyone safe and ensure order. Without them, we’d simply have hazardous work environments in which nothing ever gets done. Things like sidewalks and traffic lights are conventional practices and ways of thinking. We have them for a reason – but sometimes they can slow you down.

Jaywalking is about taking a courageous, proactive approach to getting where you want to be. If I want to be at the café across the street, convention says that I should walk down the road to the nearest intersection, wait until the traffic light signals the appropriate time to cross, walk between the lines to the other side of the road, and then make my way to my destination.

Careers and businesses often work much the same way. There is codified way of doing things. If you want to do something or get somewhere, you follow the procedures.

But isn’t it sometimes faster to just walk across the street, traffic laws be damned? Isn’t it sometimes more efficient to jump straight to the solution?

That is called jaywalking, and this is how to do it well.

Be goal-oriented.

The purpose of jaywalking is to arrive at your destination as quickly as possible. The purpose is not to be a flagrant nonconformist or an annoyance to respectable motorists.

Innovation works the same way. Innovate for a reason, and make that reason clear to your colleagues and superiors. Developing a new, more effective way of completing a task looks a lot better to a manager than radical action that benefits nothing except your overblown sense of individuality.

By all means feel free to experiment, but remember that you probably won’t get anywhere if you’re not heading somewhere.

Look both ways.

Jaywalking entails a certain amount of risk. Make sure you assess your circumstances before you start trailblazing. Awareness (of self, system, and situation) makes it significantly more likely that things will go well.

Be assertive…

When I am driving, I can’t stand it when some pedestrian jumps off the sidewalk unexpectedly and makes a mad, zigzagging dash for the other side of the road. I much prefer experienced, assertive jaywalkers who wait for an appropriate time to cross, and move at a constant pace along a predictable trajectory. It also helps if they make eye contact.

Innovation is the same. Startling your coworkers with an unexpected, radical new way of doing things will just make people anxious if you are anxious yourself. If you behave like you think you’re doing something wrong, they will probably think you are.

Connect with people. Make it clear that you are confident in what you are doing and make it easy for them to understand where you are headed. They’ll be happy to touch the breaks a little to keep you safe.

… But don’t be a dick.

Do not scorn those who choose to obey the rules or abide by convention. If they want to wait until the little man says walk, let them. If you think they are limiting themselves, inspire them by stepping off the sidewalk, but do not try to drag them with you.

Do not flip the bird at motorists who do not slow down or who honk their horns at you. You are breaking the rules and they are not. They have a right to complain or disapprove of your actions – you’re slowing them down for the sake of attaining your personal goals, and it is your responsibility to handle dissent in an adult matter.

This is especially true with your superiors. You can only curse at so many SUV-driving motorists before someone decides to make you a hood ornament, so mind your manners.

Be smart or be road kill.

Just as some towns and cities are more jaywalker-friendly than others, so some institutions and businesses are conducive to creative thinking, while others punish it. It is important to consider your business context before you attempt a leisurely stroll across the corporate equivalent of a six-lane highway.

Remember that your straying off the beaten path presents – more often than not – a significant inconvenience to others. Your superiors are more likely to slow down and let you experiment if they don’t have a mile of high-speed traffic behind them. Managers with pressing deadlines and high stress are to radical innovators what 18-wheelers are to jaywalkers. Act accordingly.

Sometimes, jaywalking isn’t faster.

Sometimes traffic changes while you’re clambering over a median. Sometimes you end up stranded for longer than it would have taken to go the long way ‘round. Sometimes people impede your creativity right in the middle of a project and your exciting new idea ends up making you look like an idiot because no one supported you.

But that doesn’t mean you stop jaywalking.

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Image credit: Bob Ionescu

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