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Black Suit, Blue Suit, Grey Suit, Brown Suit

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill “Skip” Powers
February 19, 2018

Recently, on a business flight to Omaha, I read a great book about an accomplished Artisan enrolled in a rigorous MBA Program. The book was part blog, humor and myopic epiphany related to the challenges of juggling work, school, home, and part exercise in self-actualization. “Artist in B-School” demonstrated candidly that sometimes in business, as in art lines are not always straight. Administration structures—much the same—should not be viewed as replicable – rather organic and evolutionary.

In another good read, “Originals: How Conformists Move the World,” Wharton author and lecturer, Adam Grant, explores the theories of creativity. Much like “Artist in B-School,” this book captures the genesis, nay, the genius, of originality. Where am I going with this diatribe? I am glad you asked—the direction lays in the basic and simplistic—Original: style of no styles. After all, what is wrong with originality and creativity? Its encouraged in other sectors — why not our administrative sector?

Let me tell you a story to accentuate my point. The first half of my career was spent as an Airman in the USAF. In the military, the guesswork of what you will wear daily is removed and replaced with replicable Camouflage or Dress Blues. For nearly a decade, I was blessed with the no-option option of what to wear, but I was never content to be the blade of grass in the field. For another decade, I wore a station uniform of firefighter. Tactical pants, boots and a white shirt was all I needed to prepare for my day riding in the rescue-squad.

Imagine my conundrum when I began to work in a sector that required business attire. In Washington, DC—much like the military—every blade of grass looks the same. Instead of perfected iron creased camouflage I was now expected to blend in with a Black Suit, Blue Suit, Grey Suit, Brown Suit.”

Yes, in fact, I actually was counseled formally in this arena. The whole time I was being “mentored” on the look of a professional, all I could think about is how great of a Dr. Seuss tale this could be Black Suit, Blue Suit, Grey Suit, Brown Suit.”

So how do you come out from under the unobscured (a blade of grass in a meadow) to emerge as something more distinct – something original, something creative? How does the uniform of a suit facilitate progress and stymie creativity? How do you convince others who are “coloring inside of the lines”— your abstract theories, approaches and methodologies are effective? Are we pre-programmed to view the pinstripe suit as a more powerful person, a safe-bet? And, the non-tie, colored blazer wearing type a risk? It is time to break that unconscious bias to find the point of creativity!

So… ditch the tie and socks. Flip up the cuffs and find a chic and retro looking blazer (yes, mine have patches on the elbow). Retire the razor in favor of stubble. Do you have the appropriate visual now?

That’s right – my career has blossomed in part by being the guy who asks a lot of questions, challenges a lot of theories, poses abstract, non-linear approaches, and dresses like David Feherty meets John Varvatos (Google search… we’ll wait). Imagine how the critics panned this guy Meatloaf who has rocked out for nearly four decades, selling 50 million albums, when he showed up wearing a frilly tuxedo shirt. My point? Meatloaf’s look was distinctive and made you take note, and this originalist gave way to a melodic sound that continues to pack concert halls. I digress. Though my recent purchase from eBay was a chic (eye roll from my wife) patchwork plaid jacket that is sure to be worn at my next DC power meeting. Nope, Dr. Seuss does not live in my closet: Black Suit, Blue Suit, Grey Suit, Brown Suit.”

This column is not about fashion, children’s authors, or the lost art of shaving and my choice in music (well maybe a little)– it is about the Originals: style of no styles and how, when viewed from a variant lens, has the DNA and the support structure to create competitive advantage… We can see competitive advantage when we begin to replace historical methodologies with innovative/original practices. This is the stanchion of my message — we must not look at how we did business to be successful — rather view the challenges differently to achieve result. Who knows, that next big idea might be lurking underneath the plaid jackets, jeans and loafers!

JJ Abrams panned Professor Grants’ “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” and said, “…by debunking myths of success stories and challenging long-held beliefs — we gain perspective on our place in the world and the potential to shake it up.”

After all, what is wrong with originality and creativity? It is encouraged in business — why not our administrative sector? Herald the beacon call of the work of management scholar Professor Grant and influential stylists Varvatos, Feherty and Meatloaf. Embrace your inner [non-conformist] leader and help build and transform the 21st Century organization culture. Ask questions push theories and advance methodologies from non-traditional approaches. You might be surprised what you find as a result! An ‘A-ha’ moment perhaps?

Author: Bill “Skip” Powers, PhD is an author, lecturer, Air Force Veteran and Senior Advisor with 25 years’ experience in federal government. Focus areas include emergency management, human capital, continuity, resiliency, and grants management. [email protected]

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