My recommended read is The brilliance of asking incredibly naïve questions by Megan Hustad. I am preoccupied at the moment with putting together a workshop I will be presenting in October called Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise in the Changemakers Festival. This workshop is aimed at people who want to leave the bureaucratic or corporate spheres and set up a charity or social enterprise, but who don’t know where to start. During the workshop I want to help these people clarify what it is that is driving them – their passions, their inspirations, the shape in their minds that their sense of altruism and / or adventure takes – and then to give them some context and some practical suggestions as to where their researches might start. The challenge for me as workshop facilitator will be in making sure that I ask the right questions. I checked my email shortly before starting to write this and found that a good friend had sent me a call for papers for a conference on “The role of design in building a competitive business advantage” which seeks to “examine how design as a strategic resource adds value to business.” She did this because she knows that design thinking – what I have been used to calling ‘my choreographer’s brain’ all these years – in business is something that fascinates me to the extent that I have been doing a lot of research on it this year. The idea of submitting an abstract made my head buzz simultaneously with terror and delight. I think I might set myself the task of developing an abstract, just for the challenge of forcing myself to get some of my observations down in tangible form. The key to writing a good abstract and paper will be to ask myself the right questions. Furthermore, I would like to use a paper to ask my audience (at this stage, hypothetical audience) the right questions. But what are these ‘right questions’. The welcome discipline of both of the above is the necessity of winnowing down my thoughts to their clearest and most essential forms. The challenge of asking myself “but what does that really mean, why am I lead to think that?” is helping me to locate and articulate ideas that have had to be teased out of years of personal history, experience in multiple work places and different sectors, and learning both formal and informal. I was looking in my scribble library today when I came across an article – The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions – published in Fortune Magazine and written by Megan Hustad. It’s a really nice piece, and discusses the need for a “questioning culture” in our workplaces where folks feel free to ask each other questions without worrying about whether those questions are too simple or make the asker look dumb. It makes the point that ‘simple’ questions can highlight essential gaps in knowledge and / or elicit profound answers. It was a good piece for me to read today because it reminded me that what I am doing right now, in putting together workshops or writing papers, is trying to find a way to ask myself the right questions so that I can ask these of others. If you want to read Megan’s piece, click here.
I spent my childhood on a beautiful island with a tiny population called King Island. There being no established pre-school at this time* my Mum and some other ladies started their own, with Mum stepping up to fill the role of pre-school teacher. She tells stories of walking around the playground and looming up behind groups of little rosy cheeked kiddies embarked upon enthusiastic play. Mum says that she never realised until then just how feral and atavistic kids are; the little ones she saw were pretending to lock Granny in the oven or preparing to be eaten by wolves. If most of us think back to the playground we can probably remember a weird dark undercurrent that bubbled alongside our games and imaginings: I was obsessed with witches, and announced to my parents that I wanted to be a lady with long fingernails who slapped men across the face when I grew up; my sister cut the whiskers off our pet cat in the spirit of scientific enquiry. Other kids acted out even uglier instincts by bullying. Most of us, thankfully, grow past these behaviours.
This morning I read an article entitled ‘Don’t Try This at Work: How Entrepreneurs Sabotage the Competition’ by Dana Severson. In it Severson lists some examples of some things that people have done to stymie, backfoot or downright sink their competitors:
“A few weeks ago, Uber was once again accused of trying to sabotage their competition. According to Uber’s lead competitor, riding sharing service Lyft, 177 Uber employees booked and cancelled over 5,000 rides.”
Severson asks “Are these dirty tactics or just competitive spirits at play?” I would call them dirty tactics, while Severson doesn’t seem to directly condemn or endorse them and is, I feel, trying to create a light hearted vibe with the piece. He encourages his readers thusly: “If you’re the type of entrepreneur that appreciates a bit of competitive rivalry, you may enjoy their confessions below” and seems to strike an approving note when he writes “In the sport of business, competition is fierce, there are winners and there are losers.”
A diverse range of people get into business driven by a diverse range of reasons and personal motivations, ranging from necessity to opportunity and from desperation to inspiration to a spirit of adventure. For some, the business world will, indeed, offer an expression for a naturally competitive personality. If this competitiveness is also combined with the right set of skills and qualities then there is no reason why these sorts of people won’t succeed (and good luck to them if they do). Severson quotes businessman Mark Cuban as saying “business is the ultimate sport” and writes: “For people like him, being an entrepreneur is akin to quarterbacking a team to victory.”
While the businessman = quarterbacker analogy doesn’t apply to all of the business people I know, it is still a good analogy for some, granted. But the examples of behaviour listed in this article don’t remind me of the best kind of athletes. There is something heroic about great sports achievements (as long as they’re not tainted by bad sportsmanship or cheating) while the business people’s actions listed in this article are just sort of… mean.
You have probably guessed by now that I don’t approve of the entrepreneurs’ shenanigans listed in this article. In the greater cosmic scheme of things this won’t mean much. People who think as I do don’t need to read this article or blog to be convinced; people who think as the cunning entrepreneurs in this article do probably think people like me are idiots who deserve to have our schemes wrecked someday. I would like to think we lived in a world where people who were pure of heart and mind always prevailed and bastards got their comeuppance but we don’t live in that world: we have all seen appalling people live happy happy lives and good people suffer, and vice versa. And how we measure our rewards varies as well: if I did something mean to a competitor I would never sleep again and any profit that ensued would really turn to ashes in my mouth. But there are people out there who get a kick out of being mean, it does make them feel smug and clever. So the question of whether these actions is right or wrong, or whether you will ultimately be rewarded by them is a fruitless one to prosecute**.
But there is one question that I think really is worth considering. If you devote time, intellect, imagination, energy and even material resources to thinking up and then doing something mean to nobble someone else’s business, why not just devote these things to doing your business really really well?
Imagine a little kid who has just discovered that a magnifying glass can be employed to burn ants on an anthill, and who is lying on his stomach engrossed in doing just that. You would be looking at a child who has applied a certain amount of logic and intellect and concentration, yes, so maybe not a stupid kid, but one who has turned his back on a whole wide world in which he might play at various things to do this one nasty act.
Just as this child becomes myopically focussed on this mundane act of cruelty, so devoting one’s self to acts of sabotage surely becomes another form of myopia. If you are obsessed with acts of treachery, what are you not being aware of in your business? If silly tricks are filling your head, have you been robbed of a broader or more creative vision for your enterprise? I guess what I am trying to say is that the things that have been offered up as example of competitiveness in this article, can also be seen as examples of a business owner being distracted from opportunities to make his / her business better. Why swap the opportunity to direct your talents towards innovation and making yourself unique for the furtive end game of bringing other people down? As Gary Hamel said “Out there in some garage is an entrepreneur who’s forging a bullet with your company’s name on it.”*** You can never know about or control the business activities of all of your competition, but you can control your own decisions as to where you focus your abilities and resources.
*a million years ago now…
**Even though I know I AM right!
***Going to have to write a blog one day about how macho the language of business is – all these metaphors from the world of sport or combat.
I have set myself the challenge, this calendar year, to create some training to help organisations boost their ability to be innovative (I will leave the specifics till a future date). I am drawn to do this because I have, in one way or another, had a long history with people who were creative and innovative. The process of winkling an idea out of someone’s head and into tangible form has long fascinated me; of a darker, unhappier fascination have been those elements that kill or enfeeble a promising innovation and how, perhaps, these can be dealt with.
Innovators come in all shapes and sizes and accordingly require a diversity of conditions in which to operate. And yet, somehow, as a society we have a set of assumptions about the ways that creative thinking and / or innovative activity evolve and manifest that are a bit ‘sameish’. I just read a terrific article on The New Republic website (www.newrepublic.com ) by Elizabeth Winkler called The Innovation Myth: Why You Can’t Engineer Creativity with ‘Innovation Districts’. I think that innovation districts and hubs have their place, but I think this piece has some ideas worth considering.
It highlights the popular idea that group activity can produce great ideas and then great innovations, that the collaborative process rules. The article then goes on to offer opinions and evidence that this is not the case, that sometimes collaborative processes can stifle creativity. As an introvert with a long history of being creative and innovative (and being around others of the same ilk) I let out a hearty cheer when I saw supporting quotes from Susan Cain’s splendid book ‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’! I also loved this quote from Steve Wozniak:
“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist … Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
Now, I have worked with some people who have very extroverted personalities who absolutely love to work as part of a group, and find the cut and thrust of the group dynamic to be a springboard for ideation and effective innovative process. But not everyone is cut from the same cloth; some of us, like Wozniak, require solitude with the same urgency that extroverts require the dynamism of a group. In my own work and creative history there have been plenty of times when I have been compelled by well-meaning colleagues or managers to participate in group activities – workshops, training sessions, rehearsals, brainstorming sessions – and I have done so through gritted teeth and with a sinking heart. These things have left me often exhausted and uninspired, sometimes anxious and disorientated.
More positively and happily, I have willingly accessed groups for company, to test material or iterations on an audience, to provide a bit of fun, or, importantly, to develop networks to support my projects. But my richest creative thinking and most effective innovative grunt work has always happened when I have been alone. I am not the only introvert I know who is like this.
Innovative districts or even single hubs can certainly provide the positive benefits I outlined above to people like me (and Winkler alludes to this in her last sentence). They can certainly be a source of creative and innovative insight and activity for my extroverted brethren. I view the evolution of the co-working movement with great satisfaction, and think that it brings some exciting possibilities and lovely values into the business world. You can’t “engineer creativity” in these, or any, physical set up. But you can use innovative hubs to generate opportunities for creative insight for extroverts.
And there’s the nub: we need, as a society, to understand that creative thinking and the potential to realise that with innovative outcomes can be available to everyone; it’s a defining feature of the human species. But we need, also, to understand that the path to doing this is different for everyone. It is not the sole purview of those who function well in jolly group settings.
All my life I have surprised people without meaning too. It’s why I call myself Dangerous Meredith. I think people see me as a quiet and assume maybe that I’m a bit dull, somewhat passive, a reliable workhorse and perhaps a potential yes-man. But then I rouse myself out of a reverie and pop certain ideas into the conversation, or go ahead to do stuff that I think is useful but which other people find startling (perhaps even threatening to their perception of the status-quo). As an introvert I have often felt locked out of society’s approved mechanisms or forums for generating or articulating ideas; in group settings my ideas are shot down in flames for being strange or are not heard at all.
What people like me need is a pathway into accessing group support when we have finished our solitary work in our hidey-holes, and when we are ready and able to articulate what the hell it is we have been doing. I don’t have a problem with innovation districts existing, even though I do fully understand the dubiousness that Winkler seems to be expressing in her article. But I just hope that whoever is designing them remembers to leave a pathway open (physically, culturally, socially) so that us outliers can visit and share.
“… circumstances led the CEOs to identify “…creativity as the single most important leadership competency for enterprises seeking a path way through the (emerging) complexity…” P.2
“The first challenge then for educating for creativity in organizations is to locate and find methods and processes for leaders to use to identify, discuss, reflect on and make sense of their own practices of creativity, paying particular attention to the organizational context for their practice; to the constraints the organization places around that practice and to the practice itself.” P. 8
“It can only be concluded that creativity training is viewed as tactical rather than strategic organizationally and something of a necessity in much the same way as compliance training or the introduction of a new technology platform is considered – a three hour training session after which you will be able commence working creatively and if you have any further questions go to the FAQ page or consult the manual!!”* P. 9
“In other words, the organization as a working entity itself often acts as an impediment to creativity and innovation. “* and “The critical challenge therefore in educating for creativity in organizations is to develop a model or method enabling organizations to perceive themselves creatively. “ P.9
“Organizational creativity does not fit simply around a linear construct or theory. Rather like a theatrical production, organizational creativity is the sum of all the parts involved in the organization’s operation with the outcome being the organization in performance.” P.10
“An organization’s creative performance is based on four key building blocks – its culture and environment; the strategic thinking style of the organization; the practices of ideation and collaboration for strategic implementation and the individual and accumulative creative behaviors, knowledge, experiences, practices and actions of the organization’s managers that are the actors in the creative performance.” P. 10
“Creativity and innovation as phenomena are difficult to observe as they occur. They emerge out of the dynamics of action, practice and reflection and in the moment, not through theory and explanation. Whilst creativity is generally viewed as abstract, it needs to be viewed differently in an organisational context in order for it to be understood.” P.11
*Do you agree? Leave a comment below…