Beware of Binders Becoming Blinders

I had only been in the meeting for about 15 minutes when I realized the chairperson had already referred to “The Binder” about a half-dozen times.  She spoke of it with a reverence usually reserved for religious tomes carved in stone and preserved for generations.  By the end of the meeting I understood we were to regard it as such.  Do not question the binder.  Do not deviate from the binder.  The binder knows all.

What the heck is this mystical binder that I am talking about? Um, simply the past records for a neighborhood association event I am helping plan.

Look.  I am a huge believer in the value of record-keeping in volunteer organizations and regularly preach the power of checklists as a vital tool in project management (you have read The Checklist Manifesto, right?).  But the binder is merely a record of the past, not necessarily a preview of the future. The continuity it can help provide is great until it constrains any creativity for new ways of doing things.

In his book, Whoosh: Business in the Fast Lane, author Tom McGehee talks about techniques he developed in Ernst & Young's Accelerated Solutions Environment (ASE) to help companies achieve radical innovation.  He illustrates how organizations tend to favor either a compliance culture or a creation culture: 
        • Compliance cultures uses systematic rules, policies, and procedures to produce routine responses.   
        • Creation cultures tap into relationships and people’s talents and initiative to produce inventive responses.
Remember that culture embodies everything people have learned they need to do in order to be successful in the organization.
While many work environments heavily favor or benefit from one cultural emphasis, all need or use elements of both.  When leading any effort, we need to ask: in order for our desired results to be achieved, where do we most need a compliance culture and where would be most benefit from a creation culture?  
A related to question to ask about your overall organizational culture is this: where are elements of a compliance culture unnecessarily impeding creative thinking and approaches and/or more innovative results?  You can also think about creation and compliance as individual mindsets and skillsets when forming project teams.  A recent post on ASAE's Acronym blog explored composition for innovative teams and IDEO's Tom Kelley discussed it in his book, The Ten Faces of Innovation.

The binder (or any records of past activity) can provide valuable information that allows people to spend time reimagining or recreating a past event in a way that builds upon its past success, but also reflects their own insights and current trends and opportunities.  It should unleash creativity, not shackle conformity.   

Binders need not, and should not be binding.  They should allow for a search and refresh approach, instead of requiring search and replace.  The former engages the power of people; the latter can be done by a computer.  You can guess which one volunteers (or staff) are likely to find more motivating.

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