Destructivity

Creativity gets a lot of props these days. Why aren’t people talking about destruction?

I’m not talking about bombs going off or about vandalism. I’m talking about the opposite of creativity: getting rid of things. Specifically, the things that aren’t working.

We all know about creative destruction and the process of disrupting systems and organizations with better technology and better ideas. This is one way to do destructivity, but it sure does come at a cost. You end up with people losing jobs, organizations and cultures disappearing, and you sacrifice a whole lot of security. You end up chopping down trees that could be repaired with some aggressive trimming.

A different way to do destructivity is more incremental. It usually happens within organizations, when someone decides that something needs to go: a software engineer decides to abandon a key piece of infrastructure that isn’t working, a CEO realizes that they have to cut money-losing units to save the whole business, a city leader realizes they have to painfully remove homes and businesses to put in a mass transit system that will benefit the whole city.

It often takes a crisis or the threat of destruction to spawn incremental destructivity, and it always takes courage. Why is this?

Probably because it’s hard. It’s hard to delete code without breaking everything. It’s hard to undo bad laws (look at the tax code). It’s hard to build parks and public transportation where people already live. It’s hard to fire people. And these things are also often controversial. They require tradeoffs, tough choices, getting to the essence of problems, and finding consensus with people who have been parts of legacy decisions.

But destructivity is just as important as the acts of creation that our society constantly glorifies; in fact, destructivity enables creativity.

We need more destructive people, and we need to glorify the small (and large) acts of destruction that enable things to get better. At the very least, we need to start talking about the other side of creativity. It’s not just “disruption” through which progress can be made – although if we fail at the incremental kind of destructivity, major disruption (“creative destruction”) is inevitable.

Thomas Jefferson said something like, “Every generation needs a revolution.” Revolutions sound exciting, but they can also be messy, and they can destroy parts of the system that are actually working. What if we lived in a world where every day brought incremental evolution in our systems and organizations instead?  All it takes is some thoughtful destruction.

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