In defence of silliness

Being a bit silly is a serious business.

One of the first things I learned as a newspaper reporter was to never be scared of asking a question that might seem blindingly obvious.

They often get the most interesting answers – and rarely do people say what you were expecting.

Yes, every now and again you might look a bit of a berk. But it’s a sacrifice worth making if it earns you the right to tell a better story.

The same is true in business.

Organisations that tell the best stories tend to be the ones that succeed.

And great stories – along with great ideas – only start when you’re prepared to ask interesting questions.

Again, it’s the seemingly simple ones that are the hardest to answer.

We live in serious times.

From troubling scenes overseas to the impact of the pandemic at home, there’s lots to feel angry about.

Serious times need serious people. But not always.

Whether you want society to build back better/stronger/fairer, the reality is if we have the same people asking the same questions and using the same processes, we’ll get the same answers.

Nothing will change. We’ll drift back to how things were – a frustrating prospect for those of us committed to social change.

Recent developments in the shift to flexible working are an example of this.

We have an opportunity to address a deep-rooted social challenge around our relationship with work. To make employment more accessible. To open doors for those locked out of the system.

However, as soon as the great debate reaches those who hold the purse-strings it gets reframed as an economic challenge, not a social one – and we’re back on the carousel.

Serious people, asking serious questions and landing on safe answers. How can this save us a few quid? Who has ever got in trouble for asking that?

Google and others appear to be heading down the route of offering less pay for home workers, while the Government has made its stance clear on where they want people to work.

To me, the Google story is a ludicrous proposition. If someone is, say, 15% more effective at their job working flexibly then surely that constitutes a pay rise rather than a pay cut? Or maybe 15% more time off fourday week anyone?

Maybe my brain works a little differently, and that’s kind of the point.

The ability to reframe situations and view challenges through a different lens will give us more hope on arriving at a future that is kinder, greener and fairer.

Ad man Rory Sutherland’s book Alchemy argues this beautifully, using simple questions to reframe the debate around everything from HS2 and tax reform, to NHS waiting times and the reasons we brush our teeth. 

The pandemic means the world is ripe for change. For the chance to write a new story about our lives and our organisations. But we won’t get there with fear and conformity.

If we really want to change, then now is the time to unleash the creative forces within our organisations and our institutions. 

To empower “the mad ones” as Kerouac described them. The ones who are “mad to live, mad to talk… the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing.”

We need folks who think differently. Who ask daft questions. Who are, perhaps, a little bit silly.

Creatives (and I include comms people in here) challenge conformity. They can take organisations to new places. 

They understand that changing perception can have as much value as changing reality – and that it is a hell of a lot cheaper.

But they can’t do that downstream as part of an operational team.

They need a seat at the top table – and leaders that are brave enough to give them a voice.

For those serious about change, creating a little more room for people who ask silly questions at to the top table might be a good place to start. 

Bobbie Hough