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Know When to Innovate and When to Conform

The author finally realizes the point of a lesson from many years ago: Sometimes you need to work within the rules.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

I recently worked on a sales presentation with a colleague who hadn’t created one before. She is very smart and was deeply insightful during our initial discussion. But when she brought me the slides she drafted, they were a panoply of colors and shapes and lines. Each slide was unique. She’d clearly spent hours working on it. I sighed and told her: “We’re going to have to redo these. We need a table of contents, we need consistency from slide to slide. Very little of this is usable.” She was shocked. She argued. And I told her a story about why large corporations need information presented in rigid ways. For those of you conjuring images of Mr. Peabody and his WABAC machine, you’re right on target.

The story begins some 25 years ago, when for the first time in my academic career, I received a “D” grade. The professor, Dr. Reamer (I’m not making that up), had assigned our freshman political science class a short essay. He also provided us with an instruction sheet, “How to write an essay,” which I glanced at and then discarded.">My educational experience to that point had been framed around being the smartest kid. My grades were straight “A’s.”  So the “D” on my paper stunned me. How could I get a “D”?  I had built an image of myself as an “A” student; take that away and what was left?

Angry, I went to straighten out Dr. Reamer, who was, and I’m not making this up either, on the same corridor with Dr. Pain. “You didn’t follow the instructions,” he told me. But my essay was better than the guidelines, I argued. It was a deep and cogent analysis and didn’t need to conform to his pedantic structure of “introduction with three key points followed by three supporting paragraphs and a conclusion.” Nevertheless, he suggested I redo it.

I went home, angrier than before, rewrote it in 15 minutes, brought it back, and he gave me an “A.”

“Hah,” I thought, “I showed him.” But, of course, I had it backwards. It took me many years before I realized it, but he had showed me. I just hadn’t understood the lesson I was being taught.

My prior grades derived from my “smarts,” as well as from my teachers’ perceptions of me. I was one of 20 or so students per year for a teacher and one of those who stood out academically. As teachers got to know me, they tended to give me the benefit of the doubt, or encourage me when I did something “creative.” For Dr. Reamer, I was one of a hundred students per semester already culled for their scholastic gifts.

He was teaching me this: The world doesn’t know who you are, and to get its attention, you have to do things in the traditional way—especially when trying to communicate. I’m not saying creativity is bad, quite the contrary, but for large organizations to function, standard formats and ways of communicating have to be used. This applies to financial statements, management reports, and even PowerPoint presentations.

Will you find such constraints frustrating? Probably, yes, you will from time to time.  But just as the world’s great novelists, visual artists, and musicians managed to express their brilliance within the defined formats their audiences understood—sonnets, symphonies, oil on canvas, and so on—so too can you. Focus on innovating within the platforms your organization has defined. Trying to innovate the format itself will only send you back to the drawing board (or desk or dorm room, as the case may be).

David Silverman

David Silverman is an author, teacher and senior executive at a Fortune 100 firm.

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