I had the opportunity to participate in the Business Innovation Factory’s always wonderful BIF #7 last week, and like many people who attended I’m still mulling over many of the presentations, ideas and relationships. One short tweet by Saul Kaplan, perhaps a throw-away line, struck me as really important. Saul said he had trouble staying in his “lane”. In fact he wasn’t sure if he had a “lane” at all. BIF and other innovation conferences should be about valuable, unplanned and somewhat random collisions.
What’s interesting about this idea of random collisions is that everything in life prepares us for the opposite. From our earliest educational experiences we learn how to take turns, stand in line and progress in an orderly fashion. We learn to color within the lines, answer questions with the expected answers. That’s because as a society we prefer orderliness, predictability, efficiency. While the stories we tell about heroes are usually those who overcame great burdens or achieved great successes through risk taking, most of our day to day lives are about staying in a lane, avoiding collisions and coloring within the lines. This is perhaps reflected in one of my favorite comparisons, the one about the difference between the Army and the Marines.
It’s said that the Army has a mantra that what isn’t expressly permitted is forbidden, and that the Marines have a mantra that what isn’t expressly forbidden is permitted. The former concept is restrictive – if you haven’t been told you “can” do it then you can’t. The latter is interpretive – unless you’ve been specifically told you can’t, then perhaps you can. Innovators work this way, and to an even greater extent. They interpret the rules, and often re-invent the rules to suit their needs and their markets.
Now, society can’t exist if we all interpret the “rules”. In fact for an orderly, productive society we need to establish rules for health, safety and continuity. But we can’t allow the rules to dictate how we think, and we must be open to reconsidering the rules when appropriate. What becomes a barrier is how few people are willing to reconsider the rules. David Keirsey, interpreting information from the Myers-Briggs personality tests, asserts that over 50% of the population are Guardians, who prefer order and stability. Only 3% of the population are likely to be engaged Inventors, who are willing to think differently and shake things up.
Is this a nature or nurture outcome? Are people naturally predisposed to prefer predictability and order, or is this something we instill early on in life, by insisting on neat lines, orderly turns and coloring in the lines? That will take more of a psychologist than I am. But between any predisposition and the education and expectations of our culture, most of us are very attuned to protecting the status quo, prefer predictability and dislike change.
So we can’t simply ask people to practice “random” collisions if they aren’t attuned to that. While many innovators (Saul, as an example) revel in interesting, random collisions and are good at combining seemingly different concepts into completely new insights, many people find the idea of staying in their lanes, coloring in the lines reassuring, and the alternative off-putting. That’s OK – we need people who are experts at running the existing stuff really well. If they have discomfort in the randomness and unpredictability of innovation, allow them to work and thrive where their passions and comforts are located. But don’t let these individuals establish the entirety of the organizational culture.
Another favorite quote of mine is from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that the roots of the tree of liberty must be refreshed occasionally with the blood of patriots and tyrants. I think he meant for that to be read in two contexts – at the time he was writing, he meant it in all seriousness. There was, after all, a war going on. But I also think he meant it metaphorically, as a reminder that we can’t get too comfortable with our government, or for that matter with the “State of Affairs”. Every firm, every culture needs a regular rethinking and refreshing. The Guardians won’t be happy with this – they’ll want your organization to stay in its lanes, color in the lines. The Innovators will desire renewal, but their numbers are so small that they can’t make a big impact unless they are supported. Too often the refreshing or renewal happens under duress, while under attack by a disrupter or market transition, rather than a carefully conceived rethinking of the business.
We innovators love random collisions, connecting ideas, people and experiences that seem unrelated, and creating something new from that experience. What we often fail to realize is that what is interesting, valuable and joyful for us is terrifying, random and not valuable for many others. That’s why innovators get so much energy from meeting other innovators, especially outside the organization, and non-innovators get so much energy from people who share their view of stability and order. When you lock your innovators down, cut out travel to conferences, neglect customer insights and experiences, you risk the same outcomes as when you take a flower and neglect to water it or offer it sunlight. We innovators need our collisions, our experiences and the ability to swerve outside the lanes. That’s the only way most organizations are going to get the ideas they need to sustain growth.
So, here’s a question. How many times, how many opportunities do the few innovators in your organization get to “color” outside the lines? If/when they do, what’s the reaction from the rest of the organization? Rather than putting up barriers to this activity, you should encourage and welcome it, perhaps even provide opportunities for it to occur, inside and outside your organization. Otherwise the dominant Guardian roles, rules and structure will take over, and change and innovation will be increasingly difficult.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.