Challenge the ordinary

Have you ever had an unconventional idea? A method or a picture in your mind that would challenge the status quo? During my time at work, I have had many of these ideas. Of course, I was somehow trained to look for potential improvements, to check out opportunities to enhance performance or perception. Sadly, I was often slowed down or even blocked by people further up on the food chain. To be clear, I am not talking about some lunatic, irrelevant or unrealistic propositions. Those ideas I am talking about are valid ones, just out of some people’s mental boxes.

I have one clear example in mind; when I volunteered to re-create the marketing concept for school visits for my previous company. Together with two coworkers, I worked on that project for more than two weeks and made great progress. We gave these school visits a new purpose, more discrete and less direct marketing, so that the interested students would actually benefit from my company’s visits in their classes. We eliminated the meaningless buzzword bombardment and threw away the somehow awkward self-adulation, replacing it with some sustainable education workshops about presentations, writing-essentials and digital identites. When all this was framed, we handed it over to our direct manager, who felt positive about it. She wanted to discuss it with her team and then come back to us. So we waited. And waited. Until finally, I received an email-request from one of my manager’s colleagues to hand over our concept. So I handed it over. It was the last thing that I ever heard about our cool, new, fresh and innovative concept. Half a year later, I was asked to give a presentation at my old school, following a newly released concept. That sounded promising, and at first I had some hope that some of our ideas had finally found a way into the new concept. But when I received the instructions, almost nothing had changed compared to the old concept.

That was just one of many experiences where I could not follow my creative thinking in a business context. So in that environment, I slowly adjusted to the status quo that I experienced: Follow the rules, and do not propose anything completely new. Do not challenge the status quo. Be like a bee swarm or an ant kingdom and follow the instructions of the queen. And never, step out of line!

Sadly, this behavior is something that I experienced quite often. The more hierarchical the structure, the more historic the roots, the less openness can be found. Or it can be found on levels directly above you, but higher orders prevent your ideas from growing stronger. Do not get me wrong, of course there are also situations when it is required to follow the rules. About nine months ago, I worked on creating a paper about start-ups at university. I made some propositions that were not accepted by my group, because the rules for scientific research forbade it. First, I was somehow disappointed that even them did not accept my ideas. But when I became more familiar with the topic, I understood their reasoning and agreed with them. In this particular case, the results would have been less tangible, more blurry and inconsistent if we had stuck to my method. But for the example with the school concept, ask yourself honestly: What is more applicable to 10th to 12th grade students? A buzzword overloaded advertising pitch where half of the words have never been heard before, or a workshop helping you in an area that is not supported a lot at school? Would Tesla be where they are now, if they had decided to build cars as everyone else? And would Apple be as famous as now, if they had created phones in the way everyone else was doing?

Two days ago, I was invited to a case-challenge. We received a case, had some time to solve the problems and finally presented our results to the hosts. When we were working on that challenge, I proposed an unconventional method for solving this case to my team. Both of them liked the idea very much, but remembering all those similar experiences to the case described above, we agreed on not pursuing that idea. So we stuck closely to the task. In the end, we did not win the challenge, but we had an extremely valuable feedback talk with the jury. I asked the judge how he would have liked the unconventional idea, and surprisingly, he seemed to like it. So his response inflamed my fire of hope for unconventionalism in the business context.

We did not win the challenge, but I was able to draw this valuable conclusion:

If you are convinced of an unconventional idea, go for it. Follow what you think is best, and do not be afraid of the rejection of your surroundings. Because in the end, you might accept the outcomes of your mainstream-adjusted idea. But probably you will not be as happy with them as you would have been with the results of your favorite and more unconventional idea.