Back in the fat days — the happy mid-1990s — Clifford Stoll, the bad-boy computer programmer, asked me, “What’s going to happen to us when electricity is gone?” Short of the apocalypse, I wondered, how could that ever happen? I didn’t realize that he meant human electricity: the juice of business ideas, the spark of risk, the jolt of innovation — everything that was making work such a blast back in the heady days when the new economy was really new.
Well, now we know the answer to the question: What’s happened in the past year is that the “creatives” have gone underground. The creatives can’t talk about ideas in public — at least not without putting themselves at risk and not as long as business is in total retro-conservative mode. Not while everybody has been fired, is scared that they’re going to be fired, or is praying that they will be fired to escape from jobs that they hate in organizations that have clamped down on anything that even smacks of risk, creativity, or imagination. We’re all enduring an ongoing attack of the clones. The question is, Where do creative people go when the empire strikes back?
Lawrence Wilkinson has long been considered a Jedi Knight of innovation. He’s produced successful films — his most compelling is also his most bizarre, a documentary on comic-book artist Robert Crumb. He’s also seen the downside, as cofounder and vice chairman of Oxygen, the struggling media company that has generated great ideas — but not great financial results. His latest reinvention is as a VC: These days, he’s not only innovating on his own, he’s also happily funding innovation. If anyone will hear the “all clear” signal first, it’s him. Wilkinson’s message is this: Don’t go over to the dark side; just shift your strategy. Watch the signals, and bide your time.
“We’re headed to a world that’s more oligopolylike, a transition from a period of robust change to a period of lock in,” Wilkinson says. “All over, there’s a settling down, a slowing of the pace of change. Companies aren’t really killing innovation — they’re rationalizing it to manage its pace. The definition of oligopolistic economics is three or so players behaving in lockstep with the marketplace. They don’t necessarily collude, but they develop ways of signaling pricing and containing innovation.”
So when we shift to an era of oligopoly, I ask Wilkinson, what happens to the creatives? “As Ralph Ellison put it, they become almost invisible,” Wilkinson replies. “Many are simply gone from their companies, and those who aren’t no longer enjoy a place in the firmament. And while the zeitgeist disciplines new ideas, the uptake rate is a lot lower. But there are huge exceptions. I helped a friend start a company called Design Within Reach. Two and a half years ago, he set out to sell highly designed furniture. He offered extremely high-design-value items — things that you’d have to buy through a decorator — but he delivered them in six days. The founder is an artist and potter who went to Stanford Business School. This is a guy who showed up in the marketplace with a good idea, and in two and a half years, his company has started rolling like thunder. Given the market’s fluctuations, we had to reinvent the business model two or three times. What’s important to know is that even in a world that tends to favor monocultures, there are going to be exceptions. And in tough times, the exceptions are even more beautiful, strange, and alluring.”
It’s tempting to portray the return of the big corporate bureaucracies as a dark time. Wilkinson has a more philosophical take on the times: He believes that monocultures and oligopolies are part of the cycle of innovation. “The monoculture will eventually defeat itself,” he says. “If you think about the period that ran after World War II until about mid-1976 — the advent of Alfred Kahn and Griffin Bell — that was a time of oligopoly: big oil, big steel. Those industries fixed prices, and the pace of innovation slowed. As consumers, we didn’t not have choices, but everything was very measured. Oligopolies tend to behave like monopolies: They defy innovation. Somehow innovation sneaks ahead, usually because it comes out of left field. Take the PC. Most people didn’t recognize that innovation — which actually began in the mid-1970s — until the mid-1980s. Then finally, during the 1980s, Fortune and Forbes changed the composition of their lists to acknowledge the new reality.”
What drives our economy to switch from a period of innovation to oligopolies and lock ins? Wilkinson’s one-word answer: fatigue. “After World War II, people were tired of change,” he says. “They were ready to worry less about choosing. Veterans Affairs offered them a set of choices, from career paths to housing to organizations. We got the 1950s.”
The 1950s? Not again! If we have to resign ourselves to another period of Eisenhower dull, man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit bland, how long will it last? Quick, I ask Wilkinson, how will we know when it’s safe for the creatives to launch their next counterattack? “Keep an eye on Washington to catch the early signs,” he advises. “Politicians are not proactive; they don’t follow technology. But they do tend to follow demand.” The worst news from Wilkinson? There are no signs of change yet.
So what’s Wilkinson’s advice to the underground? “In two years, the landscape will be completely different,” he says. “People will be bored by the lack of innovation. Boredom will replace fear. You just have to wait it out.”
In the meantime, keep practicing with your light saber.
Harriet Rubin (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Fast Company senior writer, has written two books on power. Find her columns on the Web (www.fastcompany.com/ keyword/rubin).