Graffiti_lgI came across this graffiti painted on the back wall of a building at Yonge and Greenfield in Toronto and I was drawn to it instantly.  Most tagging mostly makes me angry at the gall of people who violate the property rights of others, but this one was different – it had a message.

If you can’t read it clearly in the picture, the tag reads:

THIS MAKES YOU…

(  ) ANGRY
(  ) UPSET
($) THINK

I’ve shown this to a few people and I find it interesting the mix of reactions I’ve received ranging from “Yah so?” to “Wow that’s deep”, but I wanted to share my thoughts on it as it relates to the business world.

So often in our work lives we do things the right way – we do things to be respectful of others opinions, to not rock the boat, to keep our heads down and to hold true to what we think people expect of us.

And then one day you’ll run across someone in your career that throws that conventional logic out the window and ‘tags’ the environment with their own thoughts and ideas.

Some of those folks will be like the graffitti artists that anger my by simply violating others rights for the sake of their own ego or need to be seen and heard.  Others will be like the artist that left this tag in Toronto – they will be people who are pushing the envelope and challenging your organization to redefine itself in the face of challenges.

The latter type of person are the type of people that we should all be aspiring to be.

That doesn’t mean we challenge everything for the sake of challenging, but that we are willing to be the one that stands up and says – something doesn’t seem right here, here are my thoughts, now let’s all have a conversation about what it means.  That sentiment is clear in this ‘tag’ where the artist has challenged us to rethink our position on graffiti overall and forces us to take the time to examine the value of their statement.

In a work environment where decisions are commonly made by committee (which would constitute a large number of large organizations), sometimes the only way to drive pace in transformation is to take a different approach to the normal message.

Consider a scenario where there are twelve people stranded on a lost beach somewhere in the Pacific (sorry – it’s not all inclusive).  The group has a large flag that they need to place somewhere on the beach to maximize its visibility to the ocean and to the boats that are passing on the horizon.

The standard approach that many organizations take is to start holding a series of meetings to discuss the various approaches, pros and cons, to weigh all the options and opinions in hope of driving to a concensus decision.  The effect with a larger group like this is that typically the meetings tend to churn slowly through options and it takes a long time to come to any decision at all (and sometimes it never gets to a decision).

The approach that this graffiti artist seems to have taken is very different and can be very successful in breaking down these types of unproductive meeting deadlocks.  Rather than gathering to discuss options into paralysis, as a leader (with or without a title) you can instead take the flag to some point on the beach, set it in the sand, and then discuss what it looks like.

By setting your flag in the sand somewhere – anywhere – you can drive people to change the conversation from pros and cons, from traditional established positions, and from unproductive political wrangling, to a discussion on the merits and challenges of that particular position.  In the mean time the side benefit is that at least the flag is sitting in the sand somewhere and there is at least an outside chance that the ships on the horizon might see it while you discuss the merits of its position.

The reality is that in most cases there is no one right answer, but rather there are a number of right answers.  People latch on to their own right answer and get emotionally attached to that decision which makes it hard to build a concensus.  When you set the flag – set a course and start working and have the right or wrong conversation on the side, people are forced to really look at the course you’ve taken to determine whether it gets to the same end goal.  Once work has started it’s harder to go back and start again, so even if the course isn’t as good as their own right answer they will be more willingly admit that this course might work as well.

Egos get dropped when you force a position, and you can move onto a more productive conversation.

So I would agree with the artists responsible for the graffiti pictured above… this made me think.  And probably in ways and about things that were different than what they were thinking, but at the end of the day I don’t think that matters.  Thanks to the artists – the value of the reflection of gained from looking at their crude scrawl on the back of a building far outweighs the $10 they spent on the spray paint.

What are your thoughts?  What does this graffiti trigger for you?

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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