A couple of weeks ago I saw a talk about “Innovation without Objectives”. Ken Stanley, a professor from Central Florida, gave this talk where he proposed that novelty was a better spur to innovation than objectives. He then went further to say that the objectives actually undermined the achievement of innovation. It was a fascinating and provocative idea. I knew it would be the best thing I did all day (it was), and it keeps coming back to my thoughts. I don’t think it was the complete answer to innovation, but Professor Stanley was onto a key aspect of what is needed to innovate.
Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.
― Henry Thomas Buckle
What if he was right? What if the whole objective basis for our planning and customer focus is stifling the very thing it is supposed to be enabling? Even if the proof were unassailable, I don’t think it wouldn’t mean anything. We aren’t capable of instituting the sort of system that would improve matters. As a result nothing would change.
In other words, the system we have today is harmful. We are committed to continue down the current path, results be damned. We have to plan and have milestones just like business theory tells us with no failure being accepted. In fact we seem to act as if failure can simply be managed away. Instead of recognizing that failure is essential to progress, and that failure is actually healthy, we attempt to remove it from the mix. Of course, failure is especially unlikely if you don’t try to do anything difficult, and choose your objectives with the sort of mediocrity accepted today because lack of failure is greeted as success.
Cowardice is the most terrible of vices.
― Mikhail Bulgakov
Americans have adopted a fearful approach to managing research that stems from a fundamental lack of trust that plays hand-in-hand with fear. Two things stand out in today’s social order a systematic fear of change, and a lack of trust for anyone. It’s completely arguable that dishonesty has become the accepted and expected social norm. Being honest is now a good way to get in trouble.
Creativity takes courage.
― Henri Matisse
The courage that once described Americans during the last century has been replaced by a fear of any change. Worries about a variety of risks have spurred Americans to accept a host of horrible decreases in freedom for a modest-to-negligible increase in safety. The costs to society have been massive including the gutting of science and research vitality. Of course fear is the clearest was to pave the way for the very outcomes that you sought to avoid. We eschew risk attempting to manage the smallest detail as if that might matter. This is combined with a telling lack of trust, which implies a certain amount of deep self-reflection. People don’t trust because they are not trustworthy and project that character onto others. The combination of risk avoidance, and lack of trust produces a toxic recipe for decline and the opposite of the environment for innovation.
The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
― Sylvia Plath
We collectively believe that running everything like a business is the path to success. This means applying business management principles to areas it has no business being applied to. It means applying principles that have been bad for business. Their application has destroyed entire industries in the name of short-term gains provided to a small number of shareholders. The problem is that these “principles” have been extremely good for a small cadre of people who happen to be in power. Despite the obvious damage that they do, their application widely makes perfect sense to the chief beneficiaries. It is both an utterly reasonable and completely depressing conclusion.
The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.
― Pablo Picasso
When returning to the theme of how to best spur innovation and its antithetical relation to objectives, I become a bit annoyed. I can’t help but believe that before we can build the conditions for innovation we must destroy the false belief that business principles are the way to manage anything. This probably means that we have to see a fundamental shift in what business principles we favor. We should trade the dictum of shareholder benefit for a broader social contract that benefits the company’s long-term health, the employees and the communities as well. Additionally, we need to recover our courage to take risks and let failure happen. We need to learn to trust each other again and stop trying to manage everything.
The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.
― Pablo Picasso