schmemocracy

Don’t worry – this isn’t a political rant. It’s got nothing to do with Trump and how I feel about tomorrow’s inauguration. No sirree. This is just a coincidence. A highly relevant coincidence. (And something I wanted to express before America’s nuclear codes are handed over to a thin-skinned, reactionary, man-baby.)

This is about office politics rather than state politics. Any parallels you see are purely in your own mind.

If you can’t be bothered reading the whole schpeel, I’ll summarise my opinion in this short statement:

Democracy sucks.

There. You can stop reading now and go about your business.

I’ve seen what makes organisations soul-sucking hell-holes

Over the years I worked in dozens of ad agencies (I was a freelance idea-monger for over half of my career). And I’ve worked with even more clients. I’ve seen what makes organisations good and I’ve seen what makes organisations soul-sucking hell-holes. And one of the worst things I’ve seen in business is the lazy use of democracy.

In pretty much every case, a democratic approach comes from the right motivations. The intentions are usually to make people feel involved or to get to a better solution or get to a solution faster or to cover off all the angles. Each of which seems like a good idea. But, from experience, a well-written brief to fewer people will give you much better results.

And here’s why:

Who wants to create a camel?

A large group of people is a committee. And committees never produce anything groundbreaking. That’s why there aren’t any statues of committees (that and the simple economics that it would cost so much more).

If you listen to everyone’s considerations you end up with too many parameters to work with – too many hurdles to leap. You end up with totally contradictory comments like ‘we’re looking for something new that shows we’re ahead of the competition’ alongside ’we need examples of where this idea has worked in the market’. So you spend all your time trying to create something that doesn’t upset any colleagues rather than creating something that everyone thinks is amazing. That results in products, services or solutions that have been more shaped by the politics of the organisation than the needs of the user.

Which is a waste of everyone’s time and money.

A democratic approach comes from the right motivations

Could you just cram a few more coins down that drain?

Talking of wasting money, surely getting lots of people into a room isn’t the best use of resources. Particularly when most of these people are usually pretty senior.

Getting lots of people into a room isn’t the best use of resources

I’ve sat in meeting rooms, waiting for the final few people to turn up 20 minutes late, and calculated that the client cost for this group is over £50 a minute. And we’ve just frittered-away the best part of £1000 waiting for someone to make a cup of Darjeeling.  When the meeting starts you have to respect people’s ideas even although you know they’re a waste of time. This democratic nicey-nicey approach results in a bunch of disparate thinking. There’s pressure and expectation to incorporate as much of the thinking of the senior team as possible. Which results in a time-consuming Frankenstein’s monster of a solution.

The higher number of people involved in assessing the solution results in more feedback and more niggly amends. You end up fiddling with words and semantics instead of improving the actual idea. At the end of the process, no one is happy. Especially the accountant.

No one will notice if I freewheel

There was a creative director that I used to work with who’d get the whole creative department involved in pitch briefs. He’d call 30 or so people into a room to brief them all at the same time. Then he’d tell them it was an ‘open brief’ and he was looking for some left-field thinking.

He did this out of all good intentions. He wanted everyone to feel involved. And he thought that more ideas would mean more chance of getting good ideas. However, what he actually succeeded in doing was lowering the creative bar.

His actions resulted in two things:

Firstly, all direction had just been removed and nobody quite knew what was expected.

Secondly, there were so many people involved that it wasn’t really noticed if you didn’t produce much.

It wasn’t really noticed if you didn’t produce much

It was always the same ambitious people who’d come up with ideas. And the same people who’d say they were too busy on paid jobs to put in the time. The same workers and the same slackers. Every time. It proved that everyone isn’t equal. They may have similar potential – and equal value as organic beings – but they certainly didn’t have equal attitudes, motivation and dedication.

I don’t know where I’m going – I was following you

The whole point of people in leadership positions is that they use their experience and knowledge to provide direction.

In a truly democratic group, they need to put a lot of that good stuff aside to allow everyone else to have an equal voice. I’ve found that the people who like democracy best aren’t very good leaders. This diffusion of power kind of suits them. If the outcome is bad, they can blame it on the group. If the outcome is good they can take credit for the idea of using a group. It’s low risk. And it usually results in low quality.

The people who like democracy best aren’t very good leadersClick To Tweet

Move over Mao Tse-tung

So am I some kind of maniacal despot? I don’t think so. I’m more of a believer in strong inspirational leadership or – failing that – benevolent dictatorship. Rather than pushing people and telling them what to do, I believe it’s more effective to lead by example and get good at curating small teams of brilliant people.

Get good at curating small teams of brilliant people

Leaders also need to be good at listening, be constantly learning, be big enough to admit when they’re wrong and actually care about the people they work with. They can’t let their ego get in the way. And they should understand that seniority doesn’t equal superiority.

Unfortunately, I haven’t met too many leaders like that.

When it comes to getting great thinking and productivity out of a group, I’ve found it’s better if it’s small. In that way, every person has full responsibility for delivering their part of it. None of them can hide and slack off. And with a good leader making sure it’s all going in the right direction, you’re more likely to end up with something focused, interesting and powerful.

Democracy is a beautiful ideal

Democracy is a beautiful ideal. The principle of giving everyone an equal voice and giving them a say in the way things are done is great in theory. But if Western governments can’t make it work to everyone’s satisfaction, why would companies think they could do any better?

Maybe we don’t need to get everyone involved. Maybe we just need better leadership.

Leaders should understand that seniority doesn’t equal superiorityClick To Tweet
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Don’t worry – this isn’t a political rant. It’s got nothing to do with Trump and how I feel about tomorrow’s inauguration. No sirree. This is just a coincidence. A highly relevant coincidence. (And something I wanted to express before America's nuclear codes are handed over to a thin-skinned, reactionary,...
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Dave Birss
Founder and Editor at OpenForIdeas.org
Dave is obsessed with creativity. He's been a musician, illustrator, stand-up comedian, poet, radio DJ, television presenter and advertising creative director. He also wrote A User Guide to the Creative Mind.
Now he runs Open for Ideas and helps individuals and companies become more creative.
You can find him speaking at conferences all over the world. And sharing his thinking in boardrooms, universities and dimly-lit pubs.