Creative Displacement


Creative Displacement

During the holidays, our family came to visit us in California. To make room for our four children and five grandchildren, my wife and I rented an RV, parked it on the street, and made it our quarters for a week. The beds were cramped and hard, we didn’t sleep well, and we had none of the conveniences we were used to. We were, in a word, displaced.

Over the ensuing days, I thought a lot about the virtues of creative displacement. Early in my career, I moved around from job to job and learned a lot. One of my mentors, the head of a publishing company, told me that his leadership philosophy was to shake things up periodically, moving people out of their comfort zones and into new roles. In other words, displacing them.

His argument was that people learn the most during the first three years in a new job.

“After five years, people start to grow stale,” he told me. So, he would shuffle his team periodically, making the marketing director his head of production, for example, moving people around to keep them learning and innovating.

As a consultant, I refer to that experience when I coach executives on the virtues of creative displacement. And I talk about four keys to making it work:

First, the people involved need to be willing participants. Some may be eager; some may need some persuasion. If someone is utterly resistant to the idea of moving and trying something new, that’s a different problem – and it’s good to ask yourself whether you want that kind of person on your team in the first place.

Second, you need to set clear expectations for what success will look like. Given achievable goals, people are more likely to make the leap. Write them down and make sure you review the goals with them regularly.

Third, provide plenty of mentoring and support. The previous occupant of the role is a logical choice for a mentor. I recommend requiring that a mentoring discussion occur weekly during the first three months while someone’s in a new role.

Fourth, you’ve got to be ready to adapt if the switch doesn’t stick. I would give people six months to fit into their new role – with no penalty if it doesn’t work out. That doesn’t necessarily mean returning them to their old jobs. Find something else for them to do.

Those are relatively small risks for a lot of upside. People grow when they are experiencing new things. Periodic job rotations can be a rich source of innovation for the company, and a rewarding experience for the people involved.

My wife and I adapted to the hard bed in the RV, to stumbling out in the cold, and to not having our clothes when we needed them. It made us more adaptable, more accommodating of each other’s needs, and more creative in finding a quiet place to read or write.

Even now, having moved back into our home, I appreciate the temporary displacement we experienced. It reminded me of the importance of being adaptable. It also reminded me of the things I take for granted. But I emerged from the holidays a better person, grateful for the chance to see the world in a slightly different way.

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