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Small is Beautiful: Lessons in How to Destroy Creativity and Innovation

April 21, 2013

Updated April 30, 2014

Folk Fest 1 I like small; I typically detest big. With the latter come replication, sameness and boredom. Yawn. Just visit a typical North American mall.

Do you prefer to find something unique, which doesn’t exist elsewhere?

Avoid malls as a start. I do–with a passion.

I love entrepreneurs. I’ve watched CBC’s Dragon’s Den from its inception over five years ago, and its replicated American cousin Shark Tank. While you get some weirdos on each episode, especially with Dragon’s Den, I love watching the serious entrepreneurs who have put their heart, sweat, soul and money into their ventures. These are amazing people, and they contribute in a major way to making our lives better.

And then there are bureaucrats.

I spent three stifling decades in the public sector, where the creativity of public servants was squashed as quickly as one would step on a cockroach. Uniformity, compliance to a resistance-to-change culture, and punishing sanctions from speaking truth to power were the embedded norms. Simply change the word “were” to “are” and you have the current state of Canada’s public sector.

Unfortunately, the public sector doesn’t have the monopoly on such monolithic behavior. Enter the not-for-profit scene.

In my past volunteer work I devoted 15 years to music festivals. The volunteers, as with other similar pursuits, are remarkable–except one must be vigilant for those who wish to hijack a festivals’ vision.

Folk fest 2 A case in point is the Ottawa Folk Festival, which for almost two decades ran as a true volunteer festival, all the way up to the executive director. To make a long story short the festival encountered financial problems a few years ago and was absorbed by the Ottawa Blues Festival, then ranked by Billboard Magazine as the 7th largest music festival in the world. Not too shabby for boring, little Canada.

There are two issues here. First, the “Blues” festival long ago abandoned its roots, increasingly broadening its genre appeal to the masses, resulting in a diluted smorgasbord of artists.

Second, the former Ottawa Folk Festival, a truly humanizing, warm and rich five day event of stellar artists from numerous countries, has become a digital advertisement for a potpourri of artists, many of whom stretch the boundaries of what could be remotely be called “folk” music.

And before any of you conclude that I’m a Boomer hippee, with a private stash of Carole King and hemp (or worse), understand that I love jazz, I play jazz piano and worship jazz. I enjoy folk music.

The late E.F. Schumacher once said: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

Examples abound of once innovative companies that made a difference to society and the economy. And then they were bought out by trans-nationals, guided by accountants (the notorious bean-counters) who don’t care except for the bottom line.

What has made the United States the world’s greatest economy is its unlimited capacity for innovation. I’m a Canadian, a citizen of a neighboring country of a mere 34 million people, one that long ago hitched its wagon to the American innovation engine.

Big is NOT where creativity and innovation begin. They’re grassroots, bottom-up processes involving human beings. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in business, government or the no-profit sector (like my music festival example). What does matter is to understand that creativity flourishes when people are not squashed by bureaucracy and when an idea or existing entity is not diluted to a mass audience.

What examples of innovation can you share, both of success and disappointment?


Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship. The act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.

– Peter Drucker


Photos by J. Taggart (Arrested Development, Ottawa Folk Festival, 2010)


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