For the past decade, measurement has been the enforcer of the bottom line. Creative metrics have been developed to ferret out and document return on investment (ROI). It is perhaps only a matter of time before such analytics address the perennial problem of innovation. How do we know what to look for and what questions to ask to hire the most innovative professionals? How do we train current employees to be innovative? What kind of culture must be crafted to support a climate of organizational innovation? Happily, there are answers.
The first solution is to hire stars—or steal them, if necessary. There seems to be no lack of procurement money and endowments. George Mason University set out to hire Nobel Prize winners. In the second year of its campaign, it had two. Now, Northeastern University and the University of Southern California have announced their plans to hire 100 world-class professors. In almost all cases, these schools lure away the best from private colleges or state universities—not with money, but, by offering innovative academics what they value most: extremely attractive and often unique research opportunities. It is not unlike the offer Hong Kong University made two years ago to a number of Chinese-American researchers: unlimited access to stem cells. In short, top innovators are lured with tempting ways to remain innovative.
A second solution involves changing the name of the game. Reject the glamour of innovation altogether for the more manageable and trainable constant of incremental improvement. The Japanese excel here—so much so that they have promulgated a new claim: Cumulative improvement equals innovation. Bit by bit, as well as byte by byte, incremental gains also have successfully crossed over into customer service, or as Southwest Airlines’ slogan claims: “Outrageous service!”
Finally, there is employee testing, which represents the current HR state-of-the-art. Psychological profiles have been refined, learning diversity has been factored in, and even Myers-Briggs has been updated and expanded to measure team performance. But is there an innovation test—a single innovation quotient?
The first to develop one will be the Bill Gates of testing. To be sure, a number of the traditional tests, as well as many of the new or revised ones, focus in part on identifying and assessing creative thinking, which is rightly regarded as an infallible sign of innovation. But the findings are scattered among many different profiles, and their methodologies are not always compatible, thus jeopardizing comparative extraction and application.
So where are we? We are certainly better off and further along than we were 10 years ago—and a far way from the creativity feeding frenzy of the De Bonos a generation ago. We have a better understanding of the star system and how it works. We are more adept at harvesting incremental yields. We can mine existing employee tests for signs of innovation while the testing industry pursues a way to single out the innovation quotient. But what can CLOs do in the meantime?
There is a pressing need to identify the obstacles and substitutive versions of innovation blocking the way. Ironically, one of the principle challenges is what has routinely facilitated success. Eric Bonabeau described and documented the extent to which we have increasingly become an imitative society in his article, “The Perils of the Imitation Age,” in the Harvard Business Review, June 2004. Mimicking the pursuit of success and acceptance, he claims, has led to self-gratifying behaviors that are often mindless. To be sure, this is nothing new. We have frequently been swept by historical hysterias throughout time, whether they involved medieval or McCarthy witch-hunts, or the feeding frenzy of stock market buying and selling. Herd thinking leads to herd action in all arenas—political, commercial, financial, technological and even learning.
Unfortunately, imitation also has negatively affected areas of achievement and distinction. It has led to questioning consensus and team outcomes. Is this a genuine triumph of negotiation or really fast-and-dirty herd agreement in disguise? Even best practices have become suspect. In the long run, are they a way of inhibiting development rather than helping it move beyond the current state-of-the-art of the status quo? Under the pressure of imitation, do best practices undermine and preclude innovation?
According to Bonabeau, four familiar forces drive imitation:
- Safety: Being with all the others, doing the same thing. There is safety in numbers, and disaster in being alone. Bonabeau quotes McKinsey’s Charles Roxburgh: “For most CEOs only one thing is worse than making a huge strategic mistake—being the only one in the industry to make it.”
- Conformity: Doing what your competitors are doing so that you can always say to customers, “We can provide that.” It might not make sense for you to offer the same service or product. The internal resources may not even be available. Minimally, imitation requires matching the range of the competition so that one does not appear deficient.
- Success by association: We believe that those who are successful should be followed. They evidently know where the pot of gold is better than we do. Such knee-jerk thinking, or nonthinking, has led many companies to join the bonanza of going global. In the process, they posted overseas losses that had to be absorbed by domestic operations.
- Good old-fashioned greed: The prospect of missing or being left out compels imitation of what the winners and stars do. Routinely short-sighted, it often places solid companies in vulnerable positions and commits them to a direction not in keeping with their core mission. Occasionally, greed can even consume the market itself. Each one adding just one more sheep results in the “tragedy of the commons.”
Lest consolation take the form of being forewarned, Bonabeau goes on to describe in great detail how marketing experts are already exploiting the forces of imitation. The process of being programmed to mimic the safe and successful is increasingly refined and accelerated to the point where we become a society that largely does not re-create, but imitates itself.
Sadly, the process might not be limited to externals or market manipulation. It might characterize internal company cultures as well. How many organizations evidence a kind of thinking that is preeminently safe, conformist, success-worshipping and envious? How often are organizational views and plans stirred and structured by imitating or following the passing parade of fads and fashions the competition is employing? How worshipful have we become of compilations of the best companies and their visionary leaders so that we are driven to emulate and follow only those models of success? What chance does genuine innovation have of taking hold when it first must overcome both the counterfeits offered by imitation and the best practices of the trendsetters? Finally, to what extent—if any—is current learning and development open to examining the ambiguities of imitation?
It is formidable to identify and redirect the company culture’s excessive imitative behaviors. It might involve taking on top leadership’s fixation on short-term and preeminently safe ways of serving the bottom line. How many CEOs and senior vice presidents were originally innovative or entrepreneurial, but now endorse positions far away from what helped them reach the top? Who can tell the current emperor he has no clothes? How many organizations enshrine truthsayers as a wise substitute for whistleblowers? Generally, this has not been done. The perils of imitation are not a familiar or typical subject of discourse or training. The tiger is both inside and outside the cage. Internal mimicking is mirrored by market uniformity. New role models and structural alternatives might be in short supply or may not exist. Imitation is not always inherently flawed. It has accounted for considerable success. So unless ambiguity rules and imitation is cast as both hero and villain, credibility could be undermined. Finally, it is not enough to target and expose imitation. There must be a bigger or larger replacement goal. The one that makes the most sense, given the pernicious influence of imitation on the one hand and the overriding needs of companies on the other, is innovation.
Minimally, three learning stages are involved. The first presents mimicking as a key, legitimate and built-in form of learning and thinking from childhood on. That includes how agreement and consensus are reached, how best practices emerge and become standard, and how organizational structures replicate themselves. Such affirmations need to be followed, however, by a second stage that essentially functions as a questioning and corrective process. In particular, independent thinking must examine how dependent thinking gradually succumbs to the psychological and organizational behaviors of Bonabeau’s four major drivers of imitation. It further examines how even the best imitation ultimately becomes an obstacle to future development.
This marks a crucial juncture. Typically, such independent thinking would be a sufficiently legitimate end-point. It is inherently corrective of the excesses of imitation. It provides a more balanced perspective, relies on data and documentation, and generally ensures a more solid and robust decision-making and problem-solving process. Independent thinking is what produces and sustains original best practices. As such, it is a familiar and final, respectable position for those companies that do not wish to venture into chancier and often uncharted waters.
Independence, though admirable, also is limited. It is too self-possessed. Above all, independence does not always lead to innovation. Just as excessive imitation often requires independent thinking as a corrective, excessive independence might require the antidote of divergent and convergent thinking.
Typically, learning has jumped to this last stage first. In the process, the first stage is slighted, the middle omitted and the last overemphasized. Imitation has not been given its due as a cornerstone of learning at the outset. Nor has its tenacious hold on certain learning cultures or its ambiguous and secret opposition to innovation been explored as the inevitable limits of dependency. We put all our eggs in one sensational basket and rush directly to the heady world of divergent thinking and creative results.
Unfortunately, in the process, we lose the continuum of the cumulative. We fail to preserve all of the options, not only for each professional, but also for the entire range of the organization. In truth, all three stages coexist. Even innovators do not always think in totally divergent terms. Similarly, organizations should inhabit, display and exhibit all three states simultaneously. Indeed, that might reflect the design of their diversity and define the multiplicity of a composite and cumulative culture.
To be sure, innovation currently enjoys a high priority. Innovation does not only anticipate the future—it creates it. It does not just drive markets—it creates new directions for the current one. New ideas and innovations inevitably become new businesses, so innovative thinking has to be paired with entrepreneurial thinking. Employees can be asked to create not just new ideas in the abstract, but new businesses that might serve to extend the life and diversity of the current company.
So we come back full circle to the continuum. Preserving the connections between the dependent, independent and divergent helps forge needed internal and external alliances and partnerships. It also seeks to value and manage the range of corporate intelligence. Not one but three innovation quotients are involved: the imitative, the analytical and the creative.
Irving H. Buchen, Ph.D., is a management and online education consultant to national and international enterprises and corporate universities. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 5 Forces Shaping the Future of HR
- Why ‘Leaders Eat Last’
- Skills aren’t soft or hard — they’re durable or perishable
- 5 things you should be doing for your virtual internship program
- Developing a real strategy for on-the-job learning
- Video: Overcoming the narrative of racial difference: Why the controversy?
- Mitigating the effects of implicit bias