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Crossing the Chasm: summary of presentation

Great innovations don’t always come from those with the deepest expertise and knowledge, or from the ‘rare genius’. And many entrepreneurs are not big risk takers. In fact, some of the most successful entrepreneurs exercise risk avoidance and careful mitigation. We still revere and seek out traditional HIPOs (the good strategists and implementers around whom we have designed our organisations), and now we seem to be topping up with ill-fitting game changers – these rare breeds of visionary talent who want to disrupt everything and everyone. We expect they will fit with our current systems to drive the relentless innovation that we tout as essential. You’ve got to wonder how that’s all working out …

Our Talent Talks Africa Conference session, ‘Crossing the Chasm’, presented new thinking to challenge the focus on innovation heroes and hubs as solutions to the demands of an innovate-or-die future. It is agile and synchronous networks that catalyse the radical ideas of change. Everyone plays a part. That’s the direction in which our organisations need to travel. Leaders and organisations of consequence will be great at developing and enabling innovation mindsets and orientations inside and outside the systems and hubs we’re used to. Are you ready to cross the chasm?

The trouble with innovation heroes and hubs
We design our organisations according to how we believe things will happen. The trouble with heroic narratives is they do not mirror what happens in practice. MIT calls this kind of heroic narrative in the tech world “Tech’s Enduring Great-Man Myth.” The trouble with perpetuating this myth is that it can make our focus too selective, at the expense of the real abundance and diversity that rests within our reach.

We need to innovate. That’s a given. And traditional HIPOs may not be shifting the dial enough. Thanks to 2015 research, we have a blueprint of more radical risk-takers and innovators, called game changers. Their creative and productively obsessional qualities catalyse new ways of doing things. But the research is also clear on how important the team is in producing what we should really be seeking – the game changing output (rather than the game changer per se). And it also shows us the composition of a game changing team. The work has been enhanced with an online Index to identify the critical contribution every person makes, raising individual awareness, focusing development as aligned to strengths, and promoting team synergy and tangible output. That’s not the only new thinking (to boot with practical organometric) challenging design and development in our organisations.

Take Adam Grant’s work ‘Originals’: “I want to persuade you that originals are actually far more ordinary than we realise.” Those who champion originality rather than conformity move us forward, they go against the grain but ultimately make things better. And they are not so different from most us of us, says Grant. They appear bold and confident on the outside, but inside, they are also afraid of risk. Linda Rottenberg, CEO of Endeavour, has spent decades training the world’s great entrepreneurs. They don’t like risk any more than the rest of us, she says. She also insists that entrepreneurs exist in emerging markets around the world, and not just in Silicon Valley. All of us can learn to be originals, and Grant is generous in his dishing up of research and practical tips to enhance idea generation and selection.

Purpose, and interesting versus important problems
How much can we really grow the pie? Since the global financial crisis, growth has almost vanished in most economies. Lorenzo Fioramonti, professor of Political Economy at University of Pretoria, has written a manifesto for radical change in South Africa: “The Well Being Economy: success in a world without growth.” He argues that we have a perverse obsession with economic growth that often results in more losses than gains and in damage, inequalities and conflicts. Think about the behaviours and decisions legitimised and incentivised in pursuit of growth targets (and more pointedly, directly observed when someone’s large bonus is at stake – we see nods from the audience at this point). Fioramonti includes real-life examples and innovative research to make the case for breaking free from the growth mantra, and building a society that puts the wellbeing of all at its centre. The benefits? In place of profit for some, we boost small businesses and empower citizens as the collective leaders of tomorrow.

The question is – are we ready to commit to a purposeful, innovation-as-usual orientation, that will serve a wider good for tomorrow? Most of us know what we do and how we do it. Few of us know why (making money is not a why). People do not buy or buy into what you do, they buy why you do it, says a recent favourite in leadership development circles – Simon Sinek. Employees who do not have a clear why will not make the discretionary effort required for your company to be great, or to inspire others. And within the context of relentless innovation, don’t be mistaken that paying your employees more, extra leave days, or bigger projects to work on will generate the kind of innovation required to play in a Blue Ocean.  People in flow at work bring ideas that set the world on fire, those playing to their strengths, recognised for their contribution and enabled to make better contributions as a team. The ‘why’ will pull them through the toughest times – again we get nods from the audience at the conference.

It takes a lot more than a ‘hero’ innovator or hub to upend markets and drive new frontiers, to create sustainable well-being for more than a privileged few. Take some time to explore the new work out there – and experiment with it in your organisation. And if you don’t have licence to do that, create it or move. Your future depends on it.

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