Wednesday, May 07, 2008

..."like herding cats"

This is one of my favourite phrases. It gave me a moment of delight during a particularly tiresome few days spent in Brussels with a group of multi-national, multi-age Quakers. Delightful though they were, trying to manouvre round a city with them was as frustrating as the time I had a go at walking an ill tabby:

Let's go here...

No... let's look here ...

RUN!!!!!!!!!!! .... and stop ... & escape ... and ...

let's look here.


And so on.

So anyway, this post by David Parrish reflects on the similarities between creatives and cats, centring on one company's difficulty in 'leading' these high and mighty pests. It's a good article and he asks if anybody has any further thoughts...

My view's this. It's not just creatives, cats are the best personality type for anybody to take on. Any talk of herding suggests that what you really want is sheep. Human beings, I would argue, were never meant to be herded. Signs that they are being herded suggests something unhealthy, dehumanising in society. And I don't include armies in that (except the most unhealthy armies). Good armies are disciplined teams.

What David doesn't mention is the reason why cats and humans became so vital to each other in the first place. People may have worked out how to harness nature and create fields of delightful foodstuffs, but without the cat, rats and mice would have eaten the whole harvest before man got it anywhere near his bread-grinder. Cats played an essential role in the development of society. Nobody drew up a contract with the cat, they just formed a happy partnership based on their skills.

The same people who tend to be compared to cats have a tendency to be highly effective in the right circumstances: they are self-motivated, they work out what they need to do and they do it well and they're not afraid to take the initiative when they see an opportunity scuttling by. Partnered with the right organisations who will provide them shelter and let them be themselves, they can be transformational. Many web 2.0 companies have this sussed. Provide free board, nice snazzy bedding and a toy or two and your cats will create the likes of Wikipedia or Facebook. The most advanced companies have trusted their users with their code and have found that, far from stealing the baby's breath, they've changed society again and again. For providing the infrastructure, they are very well rewarded.

I worry a little every time I see mention of 'leaders' anywhere near consultants (not counting David as I've heard very nice things about him). It tends to go alongside an assumption that you have, or need, a compliant population and that with the right leadership everything will be better. Your people are your problem and we, the well-paid consultants, can show you how to change them. Personal empowerment doesn't really come into it. Recent developments in the business support model are following other government trends by creating structures that are overly paternal and creating deep mistrust amongst the people they are supposed to be trying to help. And no matter how good your intentions are, if a cat doesn't like what you're trying to do it will opt out of your system and find some other way to be happy.

This is important in the context of the creative sector because in our area, creatives are being feted as the potential catalysts for growth. If we do well, we will need coffee shops, food shops and the rest. It is the case in Burslem that because we have a very low cost base and from that many remarkable collaborations have sprung up. This week, we're putting together the Arts & Crafts Festival that will hopefully fill the streets with fun. Why are we doing it? Because it's good for business and we want to. But creatives aren't different from anyone else. Britain's future, I have heard a senior minister say, is not in the jobs where you need to be a gentle cow, the jobs for life where no imagination was required. Where that leaves the mass service industry is anybody's guess. But looking at it positively, it requires a population of people who work hard for their own means, in small partnerships, following their passions, whether that means running a cafe, a newspaper, gardening company or an IT company. The owners of small businesses work harder than anybody else, increasing productivity (if undercutting the minimum wage). The only effective way to deliver this change is to give people the confidence to find their own niche, to become the cat.

The difference in approach is one of trust and having faith that people's actions are for good intentions and will have good effects, even if the outcomes are not the ones you have on your stupid bloody outcome ticksheet. Let people off the lead, but provide a supportive atmosphere and we could really change things.

OK, I've probably taken the analogy far enough now, someone else should have a go :)


Martin Donkin said...

I want to come back as a cat!

Anonymous said...

Ah, but the idea is this... the scruffy arty cats are herded into the area first. They're hungry, so they scare away all the rats. Once they've done that, the fat cats can move in. It's called gentrification.