Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What Kipling has to say about innovation culture

There's a poem I love, that we post-modern types aren't supposed to love, because it was written by a colonialist Victorian, which by itself is almost enough to discredit any literature.  I'm talking today about the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling.  If is a poem about keeping your wits about you when others are losing theirs, and keeping your course and beliefs when others doubt you.

I think If should be mounted on the cubicle wall or meeting space or prototyping lab of every person who claims to be an innovator.  There are a couple of passages that especially ring true for me.  The first one is:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
  If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
  And treat those two impostors just the same;
 Innovators must be able to dream - to think about new products and services, to imagine new business models.  Simultaneously they must make those dreams realities - come back to earth and figure out how to recognize those dreams as new solutions.  And in doing so, innovators will meet with both Triumph and Disaster, Disaster more frequently in fact.  As long as you keep the disasters or failures small and cheap, then you are experimenting as you should.  A final note on this passage:  many, many companies have succeeded once and had a Triumph.  That alone does not make them an innovator.  It means they were lucky, or in the right time at the right place.  Too often this Triumph, as Kipling calls it, leads to complacency and arrogance.

Later in the same poem Kipling writes:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
  And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
  And never breathe a word about your loss;

Kipling understood that we need to achieve a balance, sometimes taking big risks and accepting the outcomes.  Innovators understand this, but corporations don't.  Corporations have tried to mitigate, manage, re-mediate and eliminate risk, and in doing so have created cultures and employees which recoil from risk and uncertainty. Kipling was looking for people who could accept and even embrace risk, understanding the possibilities, both the rewards and the potential loss, and reasonably unaffected in either outcome.  Over the years we've built organizations that are predictable and dependable, but in doing so we've lost the ability to dream and take risks, or even understand how to embrace risk.  In this loss, we've lost a lot of what should be an innate ability to innovate.

Of course Kipling was putting into words the concept of the English "stiff upper lip" where one was expected to "never complain and never explain".  But there's a lot in If that relates to the requirements and demands of a people and culture that hope to innovate.  Innovators have to ignore the conventional and shrug when others question ideas or motives.  Kipling addresses this social ostracism that many innovators can feel:

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
  But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
  Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

In a society that was as cohesive and orderly as the Victorian age was, it must have been quite a thing to read If in its day and recognize that a person with strong ideas could stand apart from the collective crowd.  Today, in some respects it is easier to do that.  We are encouraged to "go our own way", to put a ding in the universe.  Yet even today the Steve Jobs of the world are rare, because there is still a great deal of conformity and group behavior in our society and in our corporate cultures.

Until and unless we as individuals follow the precepts of the ideas behind If, and our corporate cultures lose resistance to new or different ideas, it will be difficult to conduct really interesting innovation.  As with much in life, innovation starts from a desire, which is lived out personally and then professionally.  If these ideas are supported and nurtured individually and collectively, we'll have more innovation.  As they are constrained by any one of us, or all of us collectively, we'll never innovate and the innovations that do happen will always be considered disruptions of the existing order.  Why do you think really interesting or radical innovation is called disruption any way?

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:11 AM


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