Friday, 20 June 2008

The Innovator's Got To Do It!

Years ago, in the early 90s, I remember watching a video of a Tom Peters’ sweat and rant guru session, where he wandered about a floor of anxious senior managers clustered around circular tables (anxious because be might ask them a question that might expose their unfitness to manage their organisations, and senior because only a senior manager could justify the cost of the ticket). Tom Peters’ style was to ask rhetorical questions in a quiet voice, answer them himself in a loud, scornful voice, and then cascade his audience with information about successful companies and entrepreneurs scavenged by his army of researchers, who happened to fit his latest theme.

Tom Peters’ guru topic this time was innovation and he said something profound (for a change) and unexpected, to the effect that the real innovators in the business world were not in the room, this day. That the real innovators are out there innovating, because they have to do it. They cannot choose to do it, they have to do it. It’s in their nature.

The connected topics of innovation and leadership, are a bit like pornography in the sense that those who consume it the most, are just not constitutionally equipped to perform the acts described in the literature. But they love reading about the stuff they can’t and won’t do. Which is the point that Peters was making.

Innovators don’t take lessons, they may not even read books, they just do it, and do it again, until the timing of their idea coincides with the timing of the market and their customers, and they make some money, or they fail. And there is a lot of luck involved, but it is a luck that is backed by persistence and perhaps a kind of autism.

It is this kind “autism” that is so valuable. A recent Royal Society of Arts publication suggested that there is a link (if only by analogy) between successful entrepreneurs and ADHD (Attention Deficiency and Hyperactivity Disorder). Governments around the world are attempting to develop entrepreneurs through their education systems, yet so many successful entrepreneurs have underachieved when it comes to education, and maybe that’s the point. At the same time, people with ADHD display many of the behavioural characteristics traditionally associated with the entrepreneur. This is not to say that successful entrepreneurs are autistic, but it is likely that their attention is not drawn to repetitive, traditional thinking that is reinforced within a conventional education that punishes or excludes heresies. So it could be the case that real entrepreneurs will innovate whether you like it, or not. And maybe the best thing to do is to either get out of their way, make it easier for them to get on with their job, or have a different kind of education that fits the psychology of those with the potential to become entrepreneurs as opposed to those who are good at education.

The problem with educating for innovation is that it creates the illusion that anyone can do it, that there is a formula that anyone can consume and succeed. The provision of this innovation education for entrepreneurs creates an illusion of success, a kind of cargo-cult of innovation reinforced by government box-ticking initiatives.

The cargo-cult was a phenomenon that grew out the indigenous people of New Guinea and Micronesia who observed the Allies’ ability to resupply their troops fighting the Japanese by air. They noted the construction of drop-zones and coloured markers and coloured smoke to indicate wind-drift and concluded that the goods (boots, water, ammunition, food and clothing) were triggered by these visual cues, and decided to copy them, and they haven’t stopped since.

What is ironic is this human tendency to construct associations between symbolic behaviour and the provision of goodness in many forms. It’s a bit like thinking that the more the government spends the better life will get. These associations between goodness and symbolic behaviour can be painful but remain hard to challenge without triggering extreme emotions amongst highly-educated people. The cargo-cult of innovation education also reinforces the idea that the highly-educated are innovative, when the reverse is more likely to be true. This explains the war against common-sense, and helps to explain why it is often so difficult to get highly-educated scientists to innovate strategically, because their thinking tends to be trapped within small academic boxes and why those scientists who are able to break out of traditional box-thinking and innovate, tend to be unpopular and driven out of the organisation. The innovation culture that is driven by academic models tends towards incremental innovation, and a fear of risk-taking which dares not challenge the prevailing formula for success that is in decay. That is why the real innovator is likely to have taught themselves in the school of hard knocks and explains why the best thing you can do with an innovator is to help them do what they are going to do anyway but help them to do it better.