Increasingly, isolation at work has become a fact of life for everyone.
Downsizing has forced many out of corporate life -- and the threat of downsizing has created an atmosphere of isolation among the "survivors." The increased workload and the pressure to get the job done further compound the isolation.
The result is the same, whether the separation is physical, emotional or both.
"There's just no time to be very sociable at work," is a typical expression of work life. "I pretty much keep to myself and do my own thing."
It is impossible to measure the loss of innovative ideas that has taken place because of these "side effects" on individuals. Fear and competitiveness do not foster the atmosphere of trust required to get the best possible solution to complex problems facing the organization.
Yet this is the common, albeit unintended, result of cost-saving measures. People will not venture "different" or incomplete ideas for fear of ridicule or fear that they will be stolen.
I was doing a survey on information flow and I asked, "When you have a new idea, who in this organization do you go to in order to try it out, to get feedback and constructive criticism?"
The answer was almost always, "No one, they can see it in the presentation along with everyone else." Isolation was having a deadly effect on the quality of creative ideas.
In this situation everyone loses.
After a merger there is an unprecedented opportunity for refreshing the information pipeline with new ideas. It is like gene pools that separate and evolve along different lines before coming back together. Both populations are enriched with new genetic experiments and mutations.
It's time to take advantage of the differences in culture, language and ways of doing things. Efforts to erase or suppress differences in the name of harmony is not beneficial to creativity. It is the friction and abrasion -- the collision of cultures -- that can generate new ideas.
But the time to do it is transitory and the opportunity can be easily lost.
If you are involved in this kind of situation, it is not a time to hide.
Exploit the chaos of the moment for your advantage. Fight isolation. Get out in the hall and seek out your peers.
This is a time --- one of the few times -- when traditional boundaries are blurred. A new order has not yet descended on your organization.
Rather than sit in your office and wait "until the smoke clears" or things are "clarified," get out and explore across discipline, cultural and spatial boundaries. Apologize later. Take the initiative to make new contacts. Seek out new colleagues and renew old acquaintances. Assess the damage to your information network and begin the rebuilding process.
Discover people you can trust.
Also discover people whose views are antithetical to your own. Find the people who challenge your assumptions, opinions and deeply held convictions. They are the ones from whom you can learn something.
Remember, contrary viewpoints can be disconcerting, but they may also produce rewarding results. Don't flinch from the argument and debate that comes from polarized viewpoints. Instead use it to discover a new truth -- without winning, losing or compromising.
Your isolation does not change the fact that the future requires innovation and creativity.
First, deal with the isolation by managing your immediate environment -- the internal environment in your head and the immediate surroundings that you control on a day-to-day basis.
Isolation breeds fear and misunderstanding. You think and you have thoughts. Many thoughts are unsolicited chatter in your head resulting from the chaos around you. They create doubts.
Doubt the doubts and believe in yourself.
A major study designed to identify the traits of creative people concluded that people who were considered to be creative were people who believed that they were, in fact, creative.
The starting point is to believe in yourself.
Next, do things that must be done alone that will enhance your creative abilities.
- Start your daily journal and write those early morning pages. Whatever is on your mind in those first minutes of the day is worth noting, whether it is a dream or a review of the previous day's events.
Keep a notebook for thoughts and ideas with you all of the time. Ideas can come from anywhere at any time. Develop a systematic way to capture them.
- Surround yourself with reminders and symbols of the creative process -- abstract art, posters, books and magazines.
It may sound trite, but there is evidence that having posters on the wall that illustrate positive, creative values, truth, courage, humor, trust and perseverance make a difference in the way people act.
Pick out some office stuff that stimulates your mind or reminds you to think creatively, redecorate. Establish enhanced creativity as an explicit personal development goal.
- Explore some new Web sites on creativity. There are many techniques to stimulate creative thinking. Try the Creativity Web.
As with everything else, doing something a different way requires practice.
And doing something new may require giving up something old. That is a decision you have to make.
Granted, people talk about reinventing themselves, or of someone who has done this, and it seems a bit bizarre. The fact is that it is something we must all do from time to time in today's world.
Many say that they simply do not have time to be creative and innovative. Downsizing has increased the workload to the point that people have to extend themselves just to keep up.
What do we have? Workman-like jobs leading to the first right answer have become the norm. People do not want to challenge a solution once they have it. They do not believe that there is the time or the motivation to create and explore more than one solution to a problem, to seek anything beyond the "one right answer."
Yes, the pressure of time is real. Deals come and go, and offshore sales do not wait for you to get ready. The effort to have more creative solutions must be factored into the process. It needs to become second nature, that a first right answer is never a completely satisfactory solution.
A solution: Immerse yourself in the work you are doing so that random thoughts and experiences are played against your preoccupation with work. Really get into it. The more immersed you become the more open you become to new ideas -- and the less likely you are to quit with a superficial solution.
Seek several "right" answers; don't settle for just one. When you are immersed, unrelated events become metaphors for your work and illuminate important points.
I lived in San Francisco when the 7.1 earthquake struck in 1989. I happened to be there again this summer when a 5.0 earthquake briefly shook the city.
I was in a hotel room watching coverage of the earthquake in Turkey. I could not help but note the difference in the effects of those quakes due to foresight, planning and public education.
In SF we were provided with detailed scenarios -- the most vivid portrayed San Francisco after the next 8.0 earthquake. The airport and Highway 101 South would sink into the landfill, the Golden Gate Bridge north and the Bay Bridge east would be destroyed. San Francisco would be an island. The financial district would be a sea of broken glass that would impede the movement of police and fire equipment. Half the emergency vehicles would be buried under the rubble of their own garages.
The National Guard would be mobilized by helicopter, but people would need to be ready to survive on their own for two weeks. Your lifeline would be a battery-powered radio.
Knowing that, we still chose to live there. We were also provided maps that showed the stability of the ground neighborhood by neighborhood before we chose a place to live.
When the earthquake occurred, damage and loss of life in San Francisco was minimal. Not so in Turkey.
These thoughts became a metaphor for professional careers.
As geologists, earthquakes hit us all the time. We know we are living in an earthquake zone when we choose to be geologists. The question is: when will it strike and how big will it be? Some are small, but some can be catastrophic. And there are lots of aftershocks.
The difference in the effects on our lives depends on the degree of planning, foresight and self-education we put in before it happens and the level to which we follow through with career self-management.
Constructive use of our isolation and conscious control of our immediate environment are essential steps in managing our own development, reinventing ourselves continuously and discovering our own creative life.