Saturday, October 6, 2012

Nurturing Rebels and Unlocking Innovation: The Creative Turn in Business and Leadership

The CMO of frog, Tim Leberecht, recently wrote, "How to Nurture Your Company's Rebels, And Unlock Their Innovative Might" (the same piece appeared at FastCo. Design). Despite its brevity, the post gathers a range of examples and sources, from innovation communes and Ashoka Changemakers to Roger Martin and U2, of a telling shift underway today to embrace oppositional thinking in business. Both in cultivating internal opposition to enhance innovative outputs and in driving a more fundamental resistance to business as usual across industries, leaders and organizations are increasingly supporting varied creative processes that seek to disrupt the status quo.

For those in the creative or some R&D-intensive industries, especially, this approach and attitude to gaining competitive advantage may not seem new. But there are at least a couple significant developments in play here.  The first is nothing less than an historical transformation of the status of creativity and innovation in business. That's a far-reaching claim, of course, and one I've developed in my own teaching and consulting on creative leadership (and that Chris Bilton has also made). Essentially, the idea is that the last two to three decades have seen a dramatic reversal of the longstanding containment - or even marginalization - of innovation within organizations whose priority had been increasing efficiency, lean operations, and rational problem-solving. The change in mindset, epitomized by innovators in Silicon Valley and outlined most familiarly in the writings on disruptive innovation by Clayton Christensen, is now embraced across industries and beyond, including the non-profit and public sectors (think "creative cities").

Leberecht's post offers a range of examples of successful contrarian practices, small and large, as noted, and concludes by recommending three possible actions for those wanting to make internal oppositions within their organizations productive.  They are:

  1. Create safe spaces
  2. Make sure that internal opposition is constant
  3. Embrace passive and active opposition 
These are sensible enough, though anyone wanting think more deeply about how to develop and deliver on this capability for this creative internal opposition should read Roger Martin's The Opposable Mind.

As important as is the call for more creative and productive internal opposition, it's a second development that I find potentially even more provocative and consequential. The image introducing Leberecht's post is a Jolly Roger and the spectre of piracy threads through his examples of creative opposition. Yet in celebrating the misfits and the rebels whom organizations and even project teams rely on for daring innovation and value-creating differentiation, the old challenge of successfully containing and incorporating oppositional thinking re-emerges. When Leberecht urges launching the development of creative opposition by asking such questions as, What is your company's black market?, in other words, one can easily extend the answer beyond that which is productive for particular organizations. Consider hacking, for example: while there are now "hackers for good," this has become a safely contained and manageable (and, by some individuals, often profitably self-marketed) subset of a larger category of creative rebels, many of whom are not "good" and indeed have proven themselves menacing.  

This is more than semantics. To think more deeply about disruption or opposition leads to the discussion of how essential creative destruction is to genuine innovation in organizations, industries and markets. Even more, though, to speak of creative leadership or innovation in terms of piracy and rebellion should necessarily take account of the boundaries of those organizations, industries and markets -- and also acknowledge the hackers, pirates, rogue traders, dark pools, black markets and more that exist beyond them. Their global rise over the last two to three decades of technological change and globalization has been every bit as dramatic - and illuminating about the nature of innovation - as that of loyal opposition whose work remains internal to corporations or industries.  

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