You’re so wrong you’re right.

“Right”, said Mark Earls, “Everyone in the second row and the fourth row come up to the stage, we’re going to play a game that illustrates what happens when humans copy each other.”

Fearful of being made to participate in a conga, or maybe mass karaoke, the nervous participants shuffle up to the front.

They line up, facing east, looking at each others’ backs.  Earls taps the person on the far left on the back, gets them to turn around, demonstrates a reasonably simple action that they need to pass on to the person in front of them.  As this action passes down the line it gradually changes.  A wave from the left becomes a waggle of both shoulders.  A nod becomes a toss of the head instead.

The audience is enthralled.  In the space of a few moments the action is entirely transformed.  Earls asks the audience to communicate to the participants what they’ve witnessed.

“That third chap in,” calls out one audience member, “He waved the wrong arm for a start”.  “Shall we say “different” rather than “wrong”?” responds Earls.

I have actually been that third chap in in Earls’ line and been called out for getting the action “wrong”, only to have Earls’ reassurance that, on the contrary, I didn’t get it “wrong”, I added creatively to the routine.  In my case it was in a client seminar, where Earls was demonstrating his brilliantly original thinking around copying that is worked through in his new book “Copy, Copy, Copy”.  It clarified to me the difficulty of requesting creativity from teams under clear pressure to get things right.  Just for a moment I wanted to apologise for my mistake, to assure everyone that I would get it right next time, that I wouldn’t make the same error twice.

Then the Herdmeister himself assured me that I hadn’t made a mistake, indeed it wouldn’t be much of an illustration of the Chinese whispers that happen when people copy each other, if everyone got the routine right with military precision.

“Talent copies, genius steals”.  (The quotation has variously been attributed to Oscar Wilde, TS Eliot and Picasso).  The build based on Mark Earls’ book and insights would be that good thinkers copy, great thinkers copy badly.

There are times in the working day when precision is massively important and getting it right is crucial to business success.  Then there are the other times, the creative moments, the occasions when we should be step-changing the thinking on a piece of business or disrupting the normal course of events.  This requires a different state of mind entirely.  One where we can get things wrong and be happy about it.  When the cliché that there is no wrong answer is real not a comforting fantasy.  When copying two or three ideas badly might engender a genuinely brilliant original answer to a brief.

Get it wrong, you couldn’t be more right.




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