Monday, September 14, 2009

Ships and Castles, Ports and Plains

I spent a few days last week and over the weekend in the company of a number of innovation and creativity practitioners. I come away from that amazed at the kinds of ideas and collaborations that are possible when we are exposed to other ways of thinking and other people.

I titled this post "Ships and Castles, Ports and Plains" because there is so much evidence that many firms take a "castle" approach to innovation. That is, they stake out their ground and protect it with a castle, occasionally leaving the castle to do battle in the nearby country. A castle is great for defense, but it suggests a reactive, defensive mindset, where the walls of the castle become an inhibitor to growth and new ideas. Ships, on the other hand, are primarily offensive in nature and are meant to explore new waters and new oceans. Ships "project" power and influence and explore or discover new things and new places. Clearly, a combination of ships and castles is probably the ultimate defensive/offensive strategy, and lends itself well to innovation thinking as well.

But what about "Ports and Plains"? While I can only point to strategic work that's been done around ships and castles, I want to claim Ports and Plains as my own. I think most research and evidence will suggest that most of the big shifts in society have come from "ports" - because that's where people from different countries, with different languages and different ideas mix and mingle. Meanwhile, out on the plains, there is less involvement with people who are "different" from the people on the plains and much less exchange of ideas and information. Ports are often seen as too permissive or too liberal, while the plains are often bastions of conservative thought.

Note that both ships and ports are concepts where people from different cultures, experiences and backgrounds interact. They are the best metaphors for mixing different ideas from different cultures. As an example of the failure of interacting with the "outside" world, consider China in the 1800s. China walled itself off from outside "corrupting" influences, to the extent that the British fought a "war" with China to get to dock in Shanghai. During the isolation from the western influences, China slipped intellectually and technologically behind the rest of the world. Contrast that with China's engagement and rapid technological increases today, as it engages the outside world.

There's a lesson in this for all of you in Fortune 500 firms who have suffered from having all of your education and travel frozen due to budget cuts. As you have less and less interaction with customers, prospects, business partners and others who may introduce new ideas and influence your thinking, you will have fewer ideas. Additionally, without the interaction of a number of different people and perspectives, your frame of reference will shrink and you'll concentrate more on safe, simple ideas. It is not impossible to innovate without interacting with others, but rich interaction at a conference, a tradeshow, an educational offering or other experience adds so much to your perspectives and your thinking.

Many firms are at risk of building a castle on a plain and never interacting or mingling with their customers and business partners, much less with other people who may disrupt or challenge their ideas. That's a recipe for extinction. Where are all the interesting places to visit? Ports and crossroads.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:57 AM


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