I am sitting in one of my favorite locations to think and reflect: an art museum. I am musing on the challenges of work that I hear from my clients while I contemplate beautiful art. I have had a number of discussions recently about the choice some of us have made to abandon corporate life and to earn our keep as an independent professional. For me, being my own boss frees me from needing to conform to the structured life corporations need to produce results using large numbers of different people with different talents and quirks.
Let me cite evidence of corporate conformity. Most business enterprises, whether they be private sector, public sector, non-profit, big, or small have some if not most of the following:
• Value statements – here is what we want you to believe
• Competency list – here is how we want you to act
• Group norms – here is how you need to treat each other
• Policies and Procedures – here is how we want you to work
These strictures are designed to reduce inefficiency and produce alignments and uniformity of results. The degree to which an employee adheres to these standards will determine his or her success as a corporate citizen.
Lest I sound overly cynical let me state that creativity does exist in the corporate world but within set boundaries. Innovative ideas are welcome but within the parameters of prudency. Too far outside of the norms and creativity becomes anarchy, the square peg that won’t fit in the round hole. When people buck the norms too severely, they are often deemed not a good cultural “fit” and are asked to find work elsewhere.
I’ve known many colleagues who wrestled with the choice to work inside organizations or to be a solo professional. The pro and con list for either side is lengthy and ranges from issues of compensation and commute to scope of work and social needs. All of these factors need careful examination. But for me, the heart of the issue is the degree one can be happy with creativity or conformity. Conforming to cultural norms can provide a comforting structure within to perform work. But comfort to one person is constraint to another. I have been a solo professional for the past 19 years so it should be no mystery where my head and heart lie.