Saving Wild Ducks: Why You Need to Avoid Workplace Creativity Killers

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My recent post, Giving Meaning to the Work: It’s How You REALLY Engage Millennials, led to an invitation to join the “IBM Wild Ducks” group on LinkedIn.

The name alone is intriguing, so I had to do some research.

Apparently, the name comes from former IBM Chairman Thomas J. Watson, Jr., who said (emphasis mine):

In IBM we frequently refer to our need for ‘wild ducks.’ The moral is drawn from a story by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who told of a man who fed the wild ducks flying south in great flocks each fall. After a while some of the ducks no longer bothered to fly south; they wintered in Denmark on what he fed them. In time they flew less and less. After three or four years they grew so lazy and fat that they found difficulty in flying at all. Kierkegaard drew his point: you can make wild ducks tame, but you can never make tame ducks wild again. One might also add that the duck who is tamed will never go anywhere any more. We are convinced that any business needs its wild ducks. And in IBM we try not to tame them.”

The line in bold is the crux of the story – “You can make wild ducks tame, but you can never make tame ducks wild again.”

3 ways to kill workplace creativity

How do you tame wild ducks in the workplace? There are several ways:

  1. Punish failure – Failure is often the inspiration to success. Post-it Notes, WD-40 and many other popular consumer brands wouldn’t exist without investment in failures. Critical lessons are learned through failure. Winning organizations know they must allow room for their “wild ducks” to experiment and sometimes fail to come up with innovations that change the market. Punishing failure is one of the surest ways to tame your wild ducks and encourage them to never innovate again.
  2. Recognize only the “big wins” and not important progress along the way – It takes time to arrive at a new, marketable product or service. In some industries (most notably, bio-pharmaceuticals or bio-technology), it can take years to bring a new product to market. To sustain motivation and keep the wild ducks flying, it’s important to recognize small successes along the way.
  3. Permitting a stagnant culture – Complacency can sneak up on anyone. Success today does not necessarily herald success tomorrow. Creating a culture that encourages forward thinking and risk taking is critical to ongoing success. Recognizing and rewarding those who take calculated risks helps avoid taming your best wild ducks.

Recognizing absurd gestures

For more on the IBM Wild Ducks culture, watch the video below (or available here). Created as part of the IBM Centennial celebration, the video shares insight from four IBM customers who are themselves Wild Ducks. I particularly appreciated these points:

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  • From Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer of Mars, Inc.: Any movement begins with absurd gestures.
  • From Carolyn McGregor, PhD SMIEEE, Canada Research Chair in Health Informatics, University of Ontario Institute of Technology: Any time you try and change the way something is done, you come against resistance.”

How does your organization keep your “Wild Ducks” flying? What absurd gestures are you recognizing? What resistance are you helping overcome?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


4 Comments on “Saving Wild Ducks: Why You Need to Avoid Workplace Creativity Killers

      1. @Watson I see it practiced in parts of IBM, certainly not all. Apparently you in one of the parts where the latter is true.

  1. Great article, Derek. As a former IBMer your words really resonated with me. At SweetRush (my current employer) we try and take the same philosophy of encouraging innovative and creativity as applied to employee performance and learning. Some clients really embrace this philosophy; for others it’s a bit more of a challenge to get them to see the SweetRush way.

    I’d consider adding three more ways in which organizations can kill workplace creativity:

    Always look at the negative … similar to “punish failure,” it’s also about how organizations look at opportunities and everyday existence. When things fail you can say, “Wow: we just wasted time/resources, etc.” or say, “Rats, we failed but what can we learn from it?” It’s also taking the perspective of, when there’s adversity (eg: market downturn, PR dramas, CEO misbehavior) how can we make it a positive thing. The “glass being half full” isn’t trite it’s a successful perspective.

    Encourage homogeneity … some companies want “sameness” in employees; but there’s a lot that embrace the diversity of thought, experience, perception, and just ways of life in general to bring different perspectives to the workplace. Homogeneity breeds narrow vision.

    Only deal in certainties … a lot of companies don’t encourage risk-taking or acting until EVERYTHING is known about a situation; often leading to what I call “analysis paralysis.” Organizations that – yes, gather some data but know when it’s time to act – are the most creative and innovative.

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