My son Dwight entered a room with mirrors on each opposing wall, fascinated by the sight of an unending set of his own reflections. And he did what nine-year-olds tend to do: he started making motions in the mirror and watching “all the Dwights” copy him. But then, with a twinkle in his eye, he straightened himself up, and in a commanding voice intoned, “Simon says ‘Put your hands on your head,’” while making the motion himself. He nodded approvingly at the other Dwights, and then, while making a new motion, commanded, “Put your hands in the air.” Without missing a beat, he pointed at the other Dwights and yelled, “You’re all out!”
Funny? I thought so, but then again, it’s my kid.
But it got me to thinking about how often I run into “Simon Says” cultures in the corporate world. Not long ago I presented to a very large company about how to improve their Internet marketing. During the presentation, the ranking executive continually interrupted me to tell me either that what I was saying was wrong, or that it was obvious.
Now, if I thought it was wrong I wouldn’t say it. (Obviously.) If I thought it was obvious it would be wrong to say it. So, clearly I wasn’t pleasing this executive in this presentation. (Let’s call him Simon.)
The funny thing, however, is that the rest of his staff appeared to be listening with rapt attention, and afterwards they went out of their way to tell me how helpful it was and how much they appreciated my help. I found it strange that none of them had attempted to say these things during the presentation, when it would have been quite helpful. Simon probably made the event less helpful for everyone there.
As I gained more experience with this company, I found that Simon was attempting to create a “Simon Says” culture. He had tried to hire people just like him and then commanded his reflections to do his bidding. And when they all did something that turned out to be wrong, that was their fault, of course.
I wish this was something that I came across rarely in large corporations, but I find it far more often than I would like. Powerful personalities play Simon in their organizations and command the rest to take certain actions. I often hear it said that Simons are good at running organizations where “command and control” is paramount, but I don’t think there are many jobs like that left, and I find Simons in a lot more places than those.
Increasingly, we don’t need commands. And we certainly don’t need anyone telling us, “You’re all out” when we make a mistake. We need to be creative in the face of changing circumstances. And we won’t be able to “do it wrong quickly” if we are put out of the game the first time we are wrong.
Lest I appear overly critical, I need to admit that I have caught myself behaving like a Simon at times. I have been the person who is sure that he is right. I have been the one ordering people around and then frustrated with them when things don’t work out. I hope that I have caught myself in time, mostly because people were brave enough and kind enough to let me know that I was screwing up.
What about where you work? Are you a Simon sometimes? Is that working for you? Or are you finding that people are not as creative and as freewheeling as you’d like them to be. If people don’t “think outside the box,” maybe you need to stop sitting on the box.
Or maybe you work for a Simon. If you do, you might need to decide to confront Simon when it’s important, or you might want to go find a new game to play. Because it’s only a matter of time before an unreconstructed Simon tells you, “You’re out.”