Do Those Corners Matter?

Lance Creativity, Leadership, People Comments

You have a group of round holes that need filling, and you are presented with the proverbial square peg. What do you do? The easy and most often employed answer is to reject the 4-sided offering:

  • that person won’t fit in with how we operate;
  • that idea doesn’t fit with how we think;
  • that solution doesn’t meet the specs we need.

This is not actually the worst outcome if you’re the person who doesn’t fit in or the idea that is rejected. Despite our current cultural zeitgeist that fetishizes acceptance above everything else, being told “you don’t fit in” isn’t the end of the world. As Seth Godin is always pointing out, this rejection can trigger feelings of failure, self-doubt, and lonliness, but it doesn’t have to; we can also choose to respond like an artist who says “That’s okay; it wasn’t for you.”

Far worse than rejection is destruction: when your square peg offering is accepted but forced to conform itself to the round hole anyway. The cliche’d saying that “you can’t put a square peg into a round hole” is not, in fact, true. With sheer brute force, you can do just that, with one noticeable side effect: you don’t have a square peg anymore. Gone are the right angles and sharp corners that defined that square peg, leaving in their place a round-ish peg bearing the scars of what once was. Organizations do this with square-peg ideas: instituting “innovation processes” that require new idea submissions to conform to a standardized template in order to make it easier for the reviewer to review them. And any organization operating under the “scientific management” principles of Frederick Winslow Taylor — whether a business, school system, etc — does this with square-peg people: removing the odd angles of individuality through enforced compliance and conformity in order to fit in to the design of the process. In Taylor’s own words:

It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.

There is another alternative — one that recognizes and preserves the value of individuality without destroying the standards of all those round holes: Adaption. Instead of knocking off the corners of a person’s uniqueness just to fit in, organizations and leaders can make use of those unique qualities by adapting to them. Rather than using the brute force of authority to enforce a singular notion of how things must fit together, Leaders can use their creativity of thought to figure out how to enable those square-peg people and ideas to plug into an organization’s round-hole world.

Those tie-clip wearin’, slide-rule wielding, engineering heroes of NASA’s Apollo 13 mission didn’t save the day by carving the corners off of that square CO2 scrubber from the LEM to make it fit into the round hole for the Command Module’s air filter. Instead, creativity and flexible thinking prevailed, and square remained a square even as it operated within a round-hole environment.

If it can be done for air filters, why not for people?