Your personal compliance review is killing your creativity
Last week, in the wake of Google’s recent wave of layoffs and the accompanying disillusionment it spread throughout employees of the company, a former Googler named Praveen Seshadri published a Medium article lamenting what he views as the tendencies Google has inherited with the ballooning growth that have stunted the company’s impact, transforming it into something that looks far different to what it began as. Sheshadri traced a narrative arc in which Google went from being this wonderfully nimble and creative company to one that, while still replete with extremely competent people, is marred by bureaucracy, a lack of urgency and mission, and a pathology for clinging to its increasingly fossilized victories as definitive of Google’s identity.
While I didn’t agree with every point or prescription Sheshadri offered, the overarching story he told struck a chord with me. It was a potent diagnosis of many of the most nebulous but undeniable frustrations I had during my years working for the tech giant.
There’s so much to react to from Sheshadri’s incisive critique – and I may well do so in future posts – but I want to focus on Sheshadri’s description of risk aversion and how it may offer leaders, innovators, and creatives a pertinent warning to consider as we forge our paths – whether with corporate giants or as solo gunslingers. In a nutshell, Sheshadri argues that as Google has grown larger, its focus has moved away from doing exceptional things for its users’ stake towards maintaining its position of power for its own sake. Sheshadri sees Google as compliance-obsessed; the company’s mission of doing amazing things has, over time, come to include a fat asterisk pointing to fine print that reads something like, as long as those amazing things incur no risk whatsoever to a single cell of the corporation’s being. (Exaggerating for dramatic effect, but you get the point.)
The risks Google stands to take, and thus in Sheshadri’s eyes wants to avoid, are numerous: the risk of making decisions that lead to confrontation, the risk of launching experiments at a pace that allows imperfections to slip through, the risk of a single change snowballing into the necessity to re-evaluate how things are done on a broader, systemic level, the risk of raising a concern that leads to a team or team member being seen differently in the eyes of their stakeholders.
While reading Sheshadri’s loving castigation of the tech behemoth and how its allergy to risk has caused it to stray from its innovative spirit, I felt aware of the fact (or at least of my personal and strong belief) that Google’s evolution into a slow and unremarkable megacorp ultimately boils down to several years of of individual decisions by individual people. In other words, while the risks that Shedhadri points to tie directly to the experience of being a big company, they’re not so different from the risks we are all inevitably confronted with when choosing whether to make big personal, professional, or creative decisions.
Part of what attracts me to poetry as an art form is that it cares that language is interesting over just about anything else. “Interesting” in the context of poetry can mean a lot of different things – it could mean musical, provocative, vivid, and a dozen other equally valid qualities. But my point is that if there were ever a handful of universal metrics used to measure poetry’s goodness, “interestingness” would be one of the first and most important in the mix.
The reason I love this about poetry is that writing interesting language all but demands that the poet takes the sorts of creative risks that Sheshadri sees Google as having grown an acute aversion to. The best poets are willing to be misunderstood or seen differently by their readers, because their focus is not on maintaining a caricature of themselves – it is on pushing their craft forward by any means necessary, and welcoming the confusion that comes with experimenting (especially experimenting in an arena that our audiences can interact with).
This doesn’t mean the temptation to avoid poetic risk-taking isn’t still there. Heck, I spend about as much time writing new stuff as I do trying to unlearn the pressures to write the way that I know “works”. But I see journeys in creativity and innovation as being about growing comfortable taking these risks in pursuit of a more diverse, creative, and subsequently meaningful body of work when we look back on what we’ve created ten or twenty years down the line.
Obviously, our tendency towards risk-aversion is trying to do something for us, whether that’s protecting us from discomfort, ridicule, or loss. But I’ll end this diatribe with a suggestion: when the perception of risk nudges us back into our routines, our worn out playbooks, our obsession with “compliance”, let’s try asking ourselves what time horizon that risk-aversion is optimizing for.
Then, let’s ask ourselves whether that time horizon aligns with the we should be prioritizing if we want to do truly meaningful work over the course of our careers.
If it doesn’t, something’s got to change.
Before something changes us.