Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Renegades, unreasonable men and jesters drive innovation

I've written before about the Shaw quote about progress and it's reliance on the "unreasonable" man.  Just as a reminder, George Bernard Shaw wrote that "a reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him.  The unreasonable man adapts conditions to himself...therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."  This was brought home as I was thinking about the events in Crimea recently.

There are people, even perhaps readers of this blog, who understand game theory and psychology better than I do, but what a great example recently of game theory and unreasonableness than what Putin did in the Crimea.  Putin has demonstrated that he will use his "unreasonableness" to get what he wants.  After all, when he acts in an unreasonable way he gets outcomes (Crimea) that he wants.  When he comes back into the fold of reasonableness, he will also be rewarded by Europe, who will be happy to see him act within what European leaders consider the acceptable norm.  In either setting, he wins.  He gets what he wants by assertiveness and ignoring convention (being unreasonable, according to bureaucrats) and will be rewarded again when he completes the takeover and acts according to international custom and law.  Those politicians and government officials, our president included, lose not because they are inept or incapable, but because they are concerned with appearing "reasonable".  They won't step outside accepted political and social norms to win what they want.

So, you may agree or disagree with my hypothesis above, but you should be asking:  what's this got to do with innovation?  Let me quote Shaw again:  all progress depends on the unreasonable man.  To be innovative, in a startup, a midsized firm or a large corporation, you've got to be unreasonable.  Being innovative by definition means creating something new and valuable, and the mere creation of something new and valuable is bound to upset the existing order.   People who build and defend the existing order will see anything new and valuable, that calls the existing order into question, as unreasonable and disruptive. 

Let's look at the typical corporate environment to see how innovation can be "unreasonable".  Most organizations have honed their operating models for years, striving for efficiency, low costs, low variability, low risk.  They have becomes machines of efficiency, which work at peak performance because the products, solutions and processes are well-defined, well-understood.  Now, attempt to introduce a radically different idea, or product, or way of thinking into that homogeneous, protected environment.  The antibodies of corporate culture will attack the new idea at once, questioning the value of the idea, the purpose and goal of a project, the predictability of a result.  Why not just keep doing what we are doing, they ask.

Gandhi was considered a renegade, a borderline criminal, for his actions to gain status for Indians and to establish home rule.  Gandhi had a great quote for what innovators will face when they introduce new ideas into a very safe and predictable corporate culture.  First they ignore you, hoping you'll go away. They they ridicule the ideas, laughing at the concepts, hoping to embarrass you.  Then they actively fight the ideas, to protect the status quo.  Eventually, if you have the stamina to push through and your ideas are valuable, you'll win.  Who but an unreasonable man could endure such resistance?

Corporate innovation faces a significant challenge, because there are few incentives and many disincentives for unreasonable men and women in the corporate culture.  Our business cultures and incentives are set up much like the scenario I presented in the Crimea, where everyone expects everyone else to act within established parameters of social acceptance and predictability.  Managers and executives who don't work within corporate culture, who question the rationale of strategy, who present new and radical ideas often aren't welcomed or promoted.  Most corporate executives toe the company line rather than act or think in what the culture would consider an "unreasonable" way.  This makes it difficult for anyone in large corporations to pursue radical ideas, because they've been taught to think within the corporate parameters, not to work against them.

In the days when kings ruled the world many had a court jester whose job it was to poke fun at plans or ideas presented to the king, often because the king needed a different opinion or perspective.  This role was often taken on by people with a very quick wit, who could create jokes about plans or place ideas in a farcical light.  The point was to question the advice and existing order.  I've argued before that many corporations need a corporate jester, to constantly question the direction and goal of organizations, and they need to tolerate and even listen to the few "unreasonable" men and women who are striving to create new products and services.  Yet too often corporate cultures squelch their voices and compensation and promotion paths are closed if people don't seem "within the fold" of the corporate culture. 

What does your culture and reward system do to the renegades, the jesters and the unreasonable men and women?  These are the people who are most likely to create interesting new ideas, and right now many corporate cultures are ignoring them, shoving them to the periphery of a business, rather than understanding how their insights can be converted into new products and services that create value for customers.  Protecting the status quo is nice, as long as you have strong defenses and weak opposition, but those days are numbered.  You must sally out and attack new markets, enter new channels and perhaps even disrupt your own products.  The reasonable managers and executives aren't going to do that.  Give the unreasonable a chance.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:02 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home