Clones and Bad Ideas

We’re all clones
All are one and one are all
We destroyed the government
We’re destroying time
No more problems on the way
-Alice Cooper

A version of this post also appears on Cambridge’s Judge Business School’s Blog

The Play-Doh Factory

Remember Play-doh?
If not, Play-Doh is a children’s modeling clay used for arts and crafts projects.  It is composed of flour, water, salt, boric acid, and mineral oil.  First manufactured in Cincinnati, Ohio USA in the 1930s, Play-doh was repurposed from a failed attempt at wallpaper cleaner.   

I love Play-doh.  As a young sculptor and self-appointed artist, I could craft anything with it—including people.  My Play-doh people all tended toward the same color (usually green), squat, not smart, didn’t move really fast—in fact, they all pretty much looked the same.  After all, they were crafted from the same mind, the same material, the same color, from the same factory—Play-doh clones.Starkiller_clones

In the work place, clones exist as well; no Play-doh required.  We simply put ourselves in a position of power and promote those around us who think like us, look like us, and act like us.  Given enough power and time, we can create an organization that thinks exactly like we do—no stress and no mess.  The clone domination strategy is binary, simple, scalable, and sustainable—restrict promotion to anyone not made of green Play-doh.  This clone proliferation cycle ensures the tide of bureaucratic inertia continues, status quo dominates, and the stress of change is nonexistent—a true clone nirvana.

Bureaucratic Inertia:  Is Bad Stronger Than Good?

Is bad stronger than good?  That depends on where we stand and our definition of bad.

Bureaucratic inertia is the inevitable tendency of bureaucratic organizations to perpetuate the established procedures and modes-even if they are counterproductive and/or diametrically opposed to established organizational goals. This unchecked growth continues independently of the organization’s success or failure. Through bureaucratic inertia, organizations tend to take on a life of their own beyond their formal objectives.

Clones thrive in bureaucratic inertia.  Rebels defy it.  Bureaucratic inertia leads to a love of the status quo, a phobia of new ideas, and a fear of disorganized messes.  The opposite of bureaucratic inertia is innovation.  Innovation requires a fluid structure, diversity of thought, and creativity.

Innovation inevitably leads to setbacks.  As Thomas Edison famously said in his quest of the light bulb—”I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  These failures disrupt bureaucratic culture and force leaders to develop plans and strategies for the future.  Clones find it difficult to understand why innovation is even required, and struggle to develop a coherent strategy for the future.  A bureaucracy attempting to innovate must ask clones to examine unspoken prejudices and to consider new processes that are perceived as inferior to the practices the enterprise holds dear.  In short, innovation slows bureaucratic inertia.

Bureaucratic clones focus on routine for very logical reasons.  Routine simply works—for the short term.  Focusing beyond the present is extremely difficult for a status quo enterprise.

The only thing that enables bad to be stronger than good is a love of the status quo and a cowardliness and laziness of clones in accepting it.

The Paradox

Leaders who recognize bureaucratic inertia as a negative look to recruit and hire heroic individuals to combat the clones.

We look to hire people who will examine our enterprise and adapt quickly in bringing change.  Leadership will seek a hero to rescue the organization.  The hero must adapt to the organization, read the cues, and adopt to the culture as quickly as possibly in order to achieve success.  Many times an enterprise will bring in a heroic leader tasked to “hit the ground running”.  The heroic leader usually fails by adapting too quickly and is absorbed by standard bureaucratic assumptions.  Given time, the leader is overtaken by the pull and inertia of the bureaucracy and assimilated into the clone nirvana.

The paradox is finding and nurturing rebels.  To break the inertia requires patience vice speed.  The organization must accept failure and disorder to produce relatively few new ideas.  A focus on a wrong concept can indeed be catastrophic and results may equate to failed business or even death. Innovation is a high-risk venture.  Obviously, the status quo is safe, but over time the organization will perish through its inability to transform to new realities.

The Rebel Alliance

We simply can’t produce something new, something powerful, something original, by following old industrial-age bureaucratic practices.  We have to change the way we have always done things by seeing old concepts in new ways.  Something new will feel uncomfortable, unpopular, awkward, and wonky, but we must be willing to expend the energy and resources to execute.  These concepts shake bureaucratic systems and clones to the core.

Innovation takes a different kind of leader—a rebel of sorts.  Clones live and are promoted by following the bureaucratic rules and adhering to the status quo.  Rebels follow their own internal compass and don’t always mix well with their clone counterparts.  Rebels tend to be self-confident; they can work alone when required and they can also be hard to rein in once set to task.  But when a rebel’s energy is channelled properly, they will fight against bureaucratic inertia and usually succeed in successful innovation.

On the other hand though, an organization can’t survive having too many rebels.  There is fine balance between rebels and clones in a bureaucracy.  Revolutions and rebellions from the Seth Rebellion in 2740 BC to “Color Revolutions” of the 2000s are fragile when first started, so rebels must be tended to and protected.  They must be promoted and teamed with the organization’s sharpest and most promising status-quo leaders.  For clones to understand there is a problem and in turn protect and promote rebels is indeed a taunting task demanding introspection and strategy—the very things clones struggle with.

Many new ideas will indeed fail, but it’s not simply about the idea. It is about the alliance between clones and rebels—“champion” building as well as convincing others of the power in new ideas and thus nurturing innovation.  In overcoming  bureaucratic inertia we find ways to fail more quickly and at a lower cost—its a cultural thing—making it as simple as possible to innovate by leveraging the strengths of both the clones and the rebels.

2 Replies to “Clones and Bad Ideas”

  1. Hi Bill,

    The interesting thing is that there is politics involved in rebellion and rebels. A rebel in the wrong spot in the organization or without a sponsor is a rabble rouser, even if that rebel has the right idea….

    It takes more than just a rebel, it takes courage of leadership to accept and harness the rebellion for a good outcome. Apple has recorded record gains recently, but their of late penchant to sue everyone over trivially obvious IP leads me to wonder if they have given the innovation lead to others. Maybe Apple needs a rebel….. IBM seems to be suffering badly from clones right now. Government bureaucracy is similarly afflicted. The polarization of the US politics seems very much a clone war as the two main camps retrench further into their corners. There is a fine line to walk there because it seems that all to often you have to be somewhat cloneish to get to a spot in an organization where you can show your inner rebel….

    Thanks for a good read,


    1. Ben: agree 100%, there is indeed a fine line between rebel and rouge. Responsible rebels are required….rebels that are all about the greater good, not personal power or simply making trouble to make trouble.
      There are always politics and good point on a bit of clone-ish-ness to get to a point where one can be a rebel with influence….that’s may point on the rebel alliance…we need both, a few clones and few rebels.

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