Shut up and Color! But maybe Color Outside the Lines… it’s the key to moving forward

71zauao-ael._sl1470_The Army has a saying. Actually, the Army has lots of sayings, but a really common one is, “shut up and color.” I think this is a throwback to kindergarten when teachers would implore kids to focus on their artwork in a vain attempt to gain a few minutes of quiet.

In the Army it usually means, “I understand that you don’t like the order you were just given. Go do it anyway.” Or, it is a self-imposed resignation as in “I was going to push back on this thing because it doesn’t make sense but the guy in charge was really hot about it. I decided to just shut up and color.”

Either way there seems to be a lot of crayon work going on.

I’ve always liked coloring. When I was a kid someone got me the box with “64 Different Brilliant Colors” and the built-in sharpener. I could color anything. But mostly my sisters and I colored in coloring books. My older sister was considered the artist. She always picked the best colors, and was extremely careful about keeping the colors inside the lines. Her “artwork” was definitely “fridge-worthy” and often occupied a central spot on Grandma’s old Frigidaire.

My younger sister didn’t have the patience to stay inside the lines, nor did she really care if the colors made sense on the picture. “I like purple,” she’d say. So what if the drawing was of a dog? Her artwork usually found its way somewhere other than the fridge.

I tried to be like my older sister, but I would lose interest in the exactness required to comply with the lines given to me. I was restless, and wanted more action than was on the page. I would deviate from the prescribed pattern, and draw in new things that weren’t there originally. It made the drawing more interesting to me, and way less mundane. It also failed to make the fridge most of the time.

Later it dawned on me that anyone who colored it the way they were supposed to could replicate real art. Get the right paint-by-numbers kit and you, too, could paint the Mona Lisa. But you were never actually going to be an artist that way. You see, artists create things. Coloring books and paint-by-numbers are ways of replicating what someone creative already did.

I wanted to create. The lines, to me, were more of a suggestion, so they were optional.

In the grown-up world, the coloring book lines we have to color inside are the rules, policies, and procedures our organizations hand down to us. We are expected to make fridge-worthy art by complying with the pre-set procedure outlined in some regulation or handbook somewhere, carefully crafted by a committee.

Our education system and most of our workforce training programs love the color-inside-the-lines approach. Do it just so, and it will always be right. Be compliant. Obey the lines and the process, and you will produce quality. Of course, this pre-supposes that the person (or, more likely, committee) who put the lines there originally was actually an artist. Ever seen art done by a committee?

There is certainly a time and place to strictly comply with the process, to color inside the lines. Pre-flight checks for my aircraft crew? Yes, please follow that checklist carefully. Reassembling the break line on my car? Now is not a good time to be creative.

Putting safety aside, there are so many times where our bureaucratic procedures are followed as if they are sacred. As if we won’t get our picture on the fridge if we deviate even a little. This is ok if you are trying to replicate greatness, but most bureaucratic processes are established in an attempt to eliminate risk, not produce anything great. (Here is a shock: our bureaucracy was not designed by Leonardo da Vinci).

So what happens if we color outside the lines, just a little? Well, it might not look right. It might make people think you’re amateurish and you’ll never get your stuff on the fridge.

Or you may find that it works better.

You might have made what PBS art show host Bob Ross calls, “a happy mistake” that gives you an opportunity to move things in a different, possibly better direction. The question is, if you don’t stray outside the lines now and then, how are you going to improve what you’re doing?

Which begs the question, of course, “Who put the lines there in the first place?” and “what assumptions were they working under when the lines went in?” “Have conditions changed to the point that those assumptions are no longer valid?” By dogmatically coloring exclusively inside the boundaries handed to you, you have conceded that the person who put those lines there knows more than you do about this specific circumstance.

I think the world needs a few more artists with a healthy suspicion of pre-drawn lines. If the rules, processes, or procedures are holding us back from achieving our purpose, they need to be crossed. If the picture looks better after you crossed them, maybe we should move the lines so others can produce the same, higher quality drawing. Or maybe, in some cases, we need to give our creative people the occasional blank canvas to work with. Who knows what kind of art they will produce?

When a process is going to lead you to a bad decision, stop. Consider coloring outside the lines. When a procedure leads us to waste time or money with no return on that investment, maybe consider that the line is in the wrong spot… go ahead and color over there where it makes sense.

If we don’t color outside the lines now and then, we are never going to know what our picture might have turned out like. There are so many possibilities if we don’t constrain ourselves with lines that are ill-considered or outdated. Challenge them. Cross them. And be bold!


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