The late comedian George Carlin used to tell the story of pigeons in New York, known (as pigeons are everywhere) for their soft cooing sound. "I'm sure that at one time," George recalled, "pigeons had a really nice call." Something wild-sounding and clear. "But a few years in the city, man" - and the call is reduced to a soft coo. "Poor pigeions," George lamented: "Their song is stuck in their throat."

He made everybody laugh with that. But think about how the work environment can do that to everyday people. How many times, in our everyday lives, do we hear someone say of a certain innovation or better way of doing things, "You know, I always thought that would be a good thing to do. But I didn't think anybody would want to hear my idea." Or worse yet, someone offers a fledgling idea (and we know how delicate those can be), only to have it shot down by a manager too busy to recognize the value - if not in the idea, than in the gumption to express it in the first place.

And so, as leaders - if we're not careful - we can create "workplace pigeons" - poor souls who would contribute, would offer up suggestions, if only they felt those suggestions would be valued. 

It's easy to create workplace pigeons. Every time we are too quick to dismiss an idea, or too busy to hear someone out, or preoccupied and so creating an atmosphere of disinterest, we risk pushing the voice of the idea-holder a bit further into his or her throat. When we create a culture that expresses desire for creativity, but then imposes subtle (or not-so-subtle) penalties on the creative individual ("Get with the program." "You need to be a team player." "That's an interesting idea, but it'll never fly here.") -- when we send out these cues, we encourage silence, playing along, waiting it out.

In any business, there is a dance between pushing the edges through innovation and maintaining excellence through repeatable processes. Get that balance wrong, in either direction, and the organization can easily suffer. A long time ago, in their seminal work, "In Search of Excellence," Peters and Waterman discussed "Simultaneous Loose-Tight Qualities." That balancing act, of allowing loose play where it makes sense and keeping things tight when discipline is required, is a hallmark of leadership behavior. And it's repeated at every level in the organization.

So before we create workplace pigeons, we would do well to take a step back and remember that the beginnings of innovation occur at intersections, where people offer up ideas, often outside their comfort zone, in little acts of personal bravery. Whether the idea - the song - is ultimately accepted will depend upon the many tests it must endure. But we should always encourage the singer, coaching where necessary if the song is off-tune, but avoiding shutting the song down. If we do this, then the messiness of our business may just give birth to a bit of competitive advantage. And that is something rare enough to tolerate lots of off-key thinking.