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Creative Career Path

Cubicle Mind for Modern Times2010.08.10

    Charlie Chaplin’s classic comedy Modern Times became a hit in 1936, as many people could relate to the parody of being treated as a cog in the wheel of the industrial machine. The factory with an accelerating assembly line, and the famous scene of the tramp caught in the gears became symbols of the times.


    Many of the tasks that used to be performed by factory hands have long since been automated, and are now performed by robots and machines, controlled by computer systems. Automation has made possible efficiencies of scale that have transformed our world, our patterns of consumption, and the way we work.


    The freedom and leverage that this made possible created a sense of creative excitement in the late 1950s and 1960s, which was reflected in new possibility thinking in many fields, from music to psychology to business. The era that bred Rock ‘n Roll, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles, also brought forth new ways of thinking about creativity and psychology in business.


    The process of brainstorming was quite revolutionary when it was first introduced in 1953 by an advertising manager named Alex Osborn in his book Applied Imagination, designed to help groups multiply their creative output.


    In 1968, an office designer named Robert Propst proposed a flexible open spaced environment he called the Action Office, which was designed to improve communication, boost group interaction and productivity. A perfect partner for brainstorming.


    But something happened on the way to the forum of new ideas. Somehow decision makers got the ideas of productivity and efficiency confused. The result was that both brainstorming and the action office transformed into something quite different from what their originators intended. Ironically, but not surprisingly, this resulted in disappointment and even psychological resistance to the very approach that was intended to help.


    Brainstorming was intended to be the premier method for non-judgmental free exchange of ideas, leading to increased creative output by groups. Yet now, some 40 years since its inception, the verdict on group brainstorming is that in most cases, the thinking of individuals far outperforms that of groups. Experts from such sources as Cornell University (, The British Psychological Society, Harvard Business Review (, and The Wall Street Journal (, have reported research that time and again has shown that face-to-face brainstorming is ineffective, and that individuals come up with far better ideas on their own than in groups. They add that brainstorming in groups can be effective if pursued after people first search for ideas on their own, before meeting as a group.


    What eventually happened to the Action Office? Apparently, it devolved over time and economic pressure into what FORTUNE Magazine called Cubicles: The Great Mistake,


    Before he died in 2000, Robert Probst, the originator of the idea actually denounced the Cubicle office system as a monolithic insanity, and nothing like what he originally had in mind. Over time the decision to save money on office space by packing cubicles in straight rows, overtook the original intention of creating a space to encourage employee ideas and communication. Motivation plunged, and the Dilbert cartoon strip became the contemporary equivalent of Chaplin’s Modern Times.

    Starbucks and other modern cafes are popular in part because they provide an idea-friendly work space away from the office. They offer both more privacy and greater freedom to think and talk. Cubicles simply cannot compete.


    There is something in the human spirit that will not be suppressed. People seek mental and physical freedom in their work. Unfortunately, not everyone gets the message to the same degree. So we continue to wrestle within the ruins of a good idea that took a wrong turn into a workspace designed for the Cubicle mind.


    One solution to this dilemma is by learning how to think flexibly within the limitations you are given. I cover this topic in more depth in my article Flexible Focus in the Frames, at

    Rather than surrender to the disappointment, perhaps we can revive some measure of the original intent to increase creative output and communication in groups at work.


    William Reed


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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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