Charles Duhigg's book titled 'Smarter, Faster, Better' really has me thinking. At first, I thought this was just another productivity guide. I was wrong. It is so much more than that!
I feel compelled to share a few thoughts inspired by what I am reading:
Under the theme of innovation, there is a part that speaks about 'Idea Brokers'. These are people who combine elements from different industries and crafts to create revolutionary ideas. When you think about it, most of the things we can't live without today came to us as a result of such unconventional combinations.
Think of the first automobile (initially horse cart + engine) tablets (laptop + notebook), Netflix (online + video rental + production house), Amazon (the internet + books). These are just the first examples that come to mind. There are many more.
James Altucher calls it 'idea-sex’. It's a bit like intellectual adultery. Its offspring comes in the form of innovation. In other words, innovation is a 'bastard'!
We like to say that innovators are people who 'think out of the box'. But if you ask them, innovation is hardly ever deliberate. It is usually an obsessive search for a fix to a meta-problem most of us don't know we have. Sometimes it is an experience of discovery. But to explore, you first need to summon up the courage to step out of your comfort zone.
Take Thomas Edison. Looking back, this man was one of the greatest 'idea pimps' ever. Most of his inventions came as the result of an open mind to importing ideas from one area of science into another. He takes much of the credit as the genius, but the real secret of his success was all about his ability to surround himself with amazing people. His team was on the cutting edge. They wouldn't frown at the idea of tying the most disparate ideas together. On the contrary, they thrived outside of their comfort zone and created things that changed the world forever.
They gave us the phonograph, the motion picture, the magnetic iron ore separator, the first sustainable light bulb and a number of other amazing breakthroughs. Here's a summary of their marvels.
You may be nodding in agreement as you read this. Yes, innovation requires a mentality of embracing outrageous thinking! It needs boldness. It is all about failing, learning and getting back up to keep experimenting. It is about knowing there is so much you don't know.
Innovation is sexy. We love to rave about it at workshops and off-sites. We want to associate ourselves with innovation. Unfortunately, most of us aren't even close to it. We wear the jersey but don't play the game. The reason for this is because we are hard-wired against innovation. Inherently, we don't like change. It makes us feel uncomfortable. We look for the exit when change walks into the room. We frown at people with outlandish ideas. We judge them and seek distance. We worry about what others may think when they see us with the 'crazies'. We even cast out our ‘geniuses’.
It makes me think back about my attempts to revolutionise how we market investment management. When it failed, it wasn't ever about the ideas but it always came down to who was present at the time of the idea. We sought the company of the wrong people.
Innovation is not about technology. That is the outcome. Rather, it is a human resources challenge. Put together a team with a desire to experiment, discover and learn. Make sure they are business savvy, curious, brave and open-minded and you will see innovation.
Apple figured this out a long time ago when they deliberately exiled the Macintosh team from the rest of the company. At the time it was madness. It had everybody confused. Today, I think they call this form of isolation ‘skunk works’. It’s another one of those Silicon Valley buzz words. The sad reality is that most companies need to revert to strange machinations to create a space for innovation...
For what it is worth, I feel compelled to share some of the lessons I learned from my innovation failures. What I am about to share comes from the mistakes I made. Here are some of my ugliest scars:
Never get into business with someone who always needs to win in arguments. It is a symptom of ego-related issues. These people need to be the smartest person in the room. They will always seek the company of mediocre people. In these environments, innovation becomes blasphemy.
Don't hire people for their past achievements. Experience is not always a good thing in a fast-evolving world because 'experts' are too busy upholding their legacy. They have too much to lose by trying new things. This part is difficult because the whole recruiting industry is built around past achievements.
Think about it, Elon Musk wasn’t groomed in the automobile sector and certainly never worked in the space industry before he started to run circles around NASA. Jeff Bezos wasn’t from the book industry, yet he changed it forever. I bet that at every turn there were a bunch of experienced professionals trying to talk sense into these people.
One of my favourite examples was a 10-year old boy called Israel Belema from Ethiopia. He was so amazed when he saw a telephone for the first time that he went back to his village and built his own little independent telephone network out of discarded electronic junk. He even used clay to make the handsets! He did it so well that he got into trouble with the national phone operator!
But all experience isn’t bad. Do you know the saying "Experience is a nicer name for failure"? If that is the case, that experience is worth harnessing. I have a friend who is a successful entrepreneur. The core of his process is to deliberately seek out people who failed at what he is attempting. The way he sees it is that they come on board with a treasure.
I made the mistake of hiring the wrong kind of experience more times that I wish to remember. People with achievements in the past often feel entitled to a place where they can bask in glory. Unless you are a retirement resort for successful people, sucking up to people with past achievements isn't always good for business.
Important disclaimer: please ignore this advice when it comes to pilots, drivers, surgeons or anything that requires the flawless execution of routines upon which other people's safety depends!
When you find creative people with great ideas, make sure they also understand the essentials of business. Innovation is useless unless it creates things that people want to buy.
Many employed creatives don't understand the bottom line of a business. It's not their fault because they usually don't get invited to join that conversation. Freelancers are often a better fit because they run a business of their own. They have no incentive in wasting time or taking on problems they can't solve. They are also emancipated from silly politics which makes them more assertive with their opinions. In addition, talented freelancers won't work with the 'smartest person-in-the-room' types.
Keep a safe distance from people who always insist on upholding industry standards. They are like magicians with a dangerous spell that goes something like "This is the way things are always done". Those words can make a business vanish! You will find those words engraved on the tomb stones of Kodak, TWA, Blockbuster and many other status-quo victims.
Accepting the status quo is a defensive move that may work in the short-term but it usually also means entering into a race to the bottom for the medium term.
My yoga instructor says: "Be a mountain river, not a pond. Water that flows is healthy, static water is infested."
Sales is not about talking people into buying from you, it is about identifying opportunity. The only way that can happen is by finding people who know how to listen to your customers. You need people who have strong emotional intelligence skills. It takes professionals who can empathise, read between the lines and identify cravings that lie below the surface. Innovation is all about finding efficient ways to satisfy those cravings.
When I was in the investment management business I used to go out there like a windup doll and talk people’s head off. I took me a long time to find out that people didn’t only hire us for the returns we could generate, but even more so to avoid making a mistake. Successfully selling investment management is all about convincing people that they will always exactly know what is going on with their investments. This is crucial because the people who hired us always to had to report to someone else. I eventually learned that apart from talent, they were really looking for reliable reporting.
The evidence shows us that most investment managers are failing with their sales processes. There are tens of thousands of funds on the market, but only a few hundred of them manage more than eighty percent of assets. The only reason why people seek out these well-known brand names is because it is the only way they can afford to make mistakes. After all, everybody else is working with these people so it can't be all that bad...
Run when you hear people self-proclaim that they are innovative. Like with most things in life, if you have to say it yourself, it isn't really happening. Some people go as far as putting the word 'visionary' on their Linkedin titles. To me, that always seemed very much like buying a set of trophies to decorate your own office.
Finally, innovation doesn't happen when business is good. It needs tension and pressure. Duhigg's book explores that theme very well. But we'll get into that on another occasion or I'll just keep on writing...
Get ready for what comes next