Beware the Purists, Lest They Kill Your Innovation

Mrs. Blankenship surprised me a few months back with date night tickets to see Herbie Hancock in concert. I spent a good portion of the evening occasionally reading over the shoulder of a gentleman in front of me as he carefully, confidently typed an exhaustively venomous email to a friend about the show.

On and on (and on) he went. Hancock had “forgotten his jazz roots” and was “trying to be too hip”. He should “never allow that electric bass on stage” and has to “leave all this weird synth keyboard stuff alone”. Every time the band stepped out of the neat confines of his imagination, another three paragraphs of missives would erupt. 

This Purist was relentless, because, by definition, that’s what Purists must be. He didn’t actually want to see Herbie Hancock; he wanted to see a previous version of Herbie Hancock — an era frozen in time like a fossil in amber. He wanted the young prodigy pianist in Miles Davis’ second great quintet. He wanted BeBop. Blue Note. It didn’t matter what Herbie had been up to for the last 48(!) years, The Purist wanted The Summer of ’63.

If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.

Eric Shinseki, former Chief of Staff of the Army

Purists are passionate, but their passion will build boundaries that stifle, strangle and eventually kill off innovation. When you set such strict standards, you must logically and consistently adhere to them. You force yourself to follow them to their logical conclusion(s) or risk excommunication from other standards bearers. You dig in your heels. You demonize anything that stands in opposition to the standard. You will not be moved. In that kind of culture, “other” becomes lesser and “that’s not how we do things” becomes mantra. 

Amazing things can happen if you let smart, talented people have some room to run. The same things that are happening now will happen if you don’t.