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January 06, 2012

Peter Friedman: Problems, Creativity and Uncertainty.

For many of us, "Weird Done Well" (to borrow a great phrase from my school chum Jay Harris) can never be Smart or Workable, and we will balk at it, and even jeer, when we see it.

Over the last few years we've written a lot about the (1) elegance and (2) utility of complexity in the workplace. See, for example, "The Great Things at Work: Novelty, Complexity and Ambiguity." Last month, Legal OnRamp's Paul Lippe took the subject another step in his fine "How Client Complexity Will Shape the New Normal For Firms and Law Schools". And yesterday Hull McGuire's Peter Friedman commented at his own blog on a Cornell study last year which showed that humans, precisely at the times they seek and even come up with "creative" solutions to problems, paradoxically exhibit a firmly-entrenched bias against creativity. In "Creativity? YOU CAN’T HANDLE CREATIVITY!", Peter explained that "creative responses to problems create uncertainty, and that people reject those creative ideas because they can’t handle the uncertainty". So the equation might be put roughly this way: Problems or Complexity + Creative Responses (read: sound but "outside the box" possible solutions) = Uncertainty. So why bother being "creative" if it wastes time and leads to just another workplace moment of paralysis?

This, of course, is not what we all wanted to hear as being the knee-jerk response for co-worker reactions to tougher issues at work. However, it does ring true. Most of us are uncomfortable with anything beyond cookie-cutter solutions to problems or, at a minimum, solutions to problems that somehow seem tried, tested and "normal". We have difficulties, moreover, in distinguishing between the unconventional and the illogical. For many of us, "Weird Done Well" (to borrow a great phrase from my school chum Jay Harris) can never be Smart or Workable, and we will balk at it, and even jeer, when we see it.

Solving problems, addressing complexity and even "thinking like a lawyer"--once described by a legendary Skadden partner as thinking about something inextricably attached to something without thinking about the thing to which it's inextricably attached--does not mean Group-Think. It doesn't mean shooting from the hip, either. It does mean a little eyes-wide-open risk taking. But most of all, you need balls. Or courage. Peter, thankfully, is that rare business lawyer who can sell "different" to clients and employees alike--and then deftly implement it. A respected and versatile IP expert and litigator with a Big Law background who has gone from private practice to law professor and back again to practice, he can be counted on to look at things freshly but practically. In his post, Peter puts it succinctly and, I think, accurately:

I’ve always told students and colleagues that being genuinely creative requires courage and the ability to persevere in the face of rejection. There’s good reason for that. As much as “innovation” is the catchword of our age, very few people in decision-making positions are really brave enough to accept innovative ideas (whether they’re teachers, school administrators, politicians, lawyers, or corporate executives).

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Peter Friedman

Posted by JD Hull at January 6, 2012 08:19 PM

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