It’s Not Creative if it’s Disruptive

The guy strode into my office  like Grizzly Adams without the smile. In those days, everyone wore suits and ties, but not this guy.  He stood in front of my desk dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans, and suspenders.

The original Grizzly Adams, smiling.

His hair was wild and swept over his large, mostly bald head. The shoulder-length strands were unkempt. His beard was thick and tangled. I was the director of the writing department of an investment company that was very conservative in dress and conduct, he was the VP’s favorite “free spirit” writer, hired for his “wild man creativity.”  He played the wild man role to the hilt–booming voice, wild antics, outrageous conversations.

Getting to the point, I hated him. He delivered nothing on time and scolded me for sticking to schedules. He was a bully to my face and cruel behind my back. He told huge tales (none of them verifiable) of amazing deeds in the service of his country,  implying shadowy connections to black helicopters and secret missions. He had scars to show, both physical and psychological. The hand scar looked like a Sunday morning bage-cutting accident. He insisted it was from hand-to-hand combat is a dangerous country where even the air was deadly. And, of course, he was paid far more than I was.

Wild Creative got a lot of attention for being “creative.” His bad behavior and poor social skills didn’t matter because he created diversion for my boss. Confusion and havoc rained on every project the Wild Creative touched. My boss was ecstatic because he was not responsible for managing the mayhem. I was.

My boss got bragging rights as he told gape-mouthed employees the story of how the Wild Creative slept (he claimed) on the floor with a knife under his pillow, one eye open, ready to kill. War scars, you know.

Occasionally, I’d plead “Please let me hire someone who is not quite as ‘creative,’ not quite as brilliant, but a lot more reliable.” It never happened. No doubt the disruptive character was smart, but he was also devious, mean, and impossible to work with. He gave creativity a bad name. He’s long out of my life, but the incident was briefly revived recently, when a corporate client of mine defined “creativity” as “disruptive thinking.” In the way corporations have of diluting words (think of what has been done to awesome and passionate), maybe disruptive means, simply, different. But that distinction is huge.

Labeling creativity as disruptive because it doesn’t fit the corporate mold isn’t fair to the word “creativity” and mis-defines “disruptive.” Real creativity is not disruptive. It may create change, demand new solutions, invent new paths to a smarter answer. It may be uncomfortable, innovative, not easy, and from a totally different perspective.

But disruptive? No. Creativity is never vicious, uncontrollable, obstreperous, undisciplined, or truculent. All of those define disruptive. Creative deviates from the status quo, may shake up the existing corporate culture, demand a new perspective, but disruptive? No.

Using disruptive to describe creativity allows the creative to become the “other,” the “them” to the rest of the department’s “us.” Saying creativity is disruptive allows the belief that labels the creative as an outcast.

No doubt, creativity often looks stubborn, different and demanding of change. Creativity has deep roots in unhappiness with the status quo. With willingness to go against the grain. With certainty of purpose.   It’s hard for a corporation to admit that change is needed. Corporate vision and creative vision may have different horizons.

Creativity has roots in “other-ness,” not disruptiveness. There’s a lot of responsibility attached to it. While risking reputation for an uncertain result, the creative has to explain how the result is useful and why the risk is worthwhile. And, of course, sometimes the creative is wrong, and their are consequences. Still, none of that is disruptive. It’s growth, it’s exploration, it’s discovery.

Creativity is absolutely how change comes into the world, but it not driven by disruptive, vicious, irresponsible behavior. That’s personality, not creativity.

Quinn McDonald is a journal-keeper and a creativity coach. She encourages creativity without disruptive behavior.

Image: Light bulb from  Grizzly Adams from