Thursday, December 13, 2012

Innovators are unreasonable networkers

It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar ... Such communication has always been, and is particularly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress," – John Stuart Mill, The Principles of Political Economy

John Stuart Mill lived at a time and in a place where the interaction of the various classes was limited, and when it occurred the conversation or interaction was one of disdain for the lower classes.  Mill lived at a time of little change and great social unrest, but his goal was to create more progress.  Today we live in a place where anyone can talk with anyone.  Twitter, Facebook and other social media provide ever greater opportunities to exchange information and ideas with a wide range of people.

But even with lowered class barriers and increased communication channels, our interactions and discussions are often narrow and limited.  Increased specialization in business and less social exchange between classes in casual settings (social clubs, religious institutions, political parties) leads to confirmation bias and less new insight.  When you read that many people who voted in the US presidential elections don't know anyone who voted for the other candidate, you know that increasingly we are gathering into tribes that don't provide for communication across the tribes.

Why this matters to innovation

As Mill noted, more progress results when people with different interests, different experiences interact and exchange ideas and insights.  Further, extensive research by Dyer, Gregersen and Christensen demonstrate that the best innovators have well-developed and active networks with people outside their industry or geography.

Good ideas exist at the intersection, or collision, of industries, technologies or needs.  If your teams constantly interact with their internal compatriots, or at best with industry competitors, then they are constantly reinforcing a small body of knowledge rather than expanding their knowledge and introducing new insights.  If you wonder why your ideas seem cramped, teams seem stymied when generating ideas or the ideas you hear about are simply uninteresting, that's because your people and their interactions are very limited.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw understood that people either adapt to existing conditions or resist conditions.  Today we have the concept of the Kirton Adaption-Innovation index, which is a personality assessment that indicates preferences for innovation (resistance to existing conditions) or adaption (adapting to conditions rather than seeking to change them).  

Why this matters to innovation

Going along to get along is a well-respected (and expected) approach to business.  Don't ruffle feathers, get in line, do what you are told.  As Shaw noted, no progress comes from this type of response, but it results in acceptance.  Most innovators are told to simply adapt to the way things are, but they refuse.  This makes innovators seem like cultural misfits; they reject the way things are.  Innovators are the people with unreasonable expectations, unreasonable goals who want to find new and better ways to create new and better products and services.


If these two concepts are true, then most innovators are more likely to be viewed as having unreasonable personalities. They don't accept the status quo and disrupt comfortable acceptance of the status quo.  They may seem a bit brash.  Steve Jobs comes to mind.  Further, they are people who constantly seek to expand their knowledge and networks, because they realize that innovation happens at the intersections of people, technologies, industries and information.  An innovator will never wall themselves off from other people or technologies or industries, but will seek to immerse themselves in these networks and experiences.  And, for that reason, may people within a comfortable organization will be happy to see the brash, unreasonable innovator take trips to conferences, trade shows and partner firms.

But prevailing culture is to go along to get along, and to put the nose to the grindstone.  There's no time for challenging the existing orthodoxy or finding new insights or technologies.  Time is the enemy, distraction and deviation are its allies.  Get in line, hurry up, focus, focus, focus.  Which is a recipe for more of the same.  Yet that's what current cultures and corporate pressures reinforce.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:55 AM


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