22 Feb Innovating your way through a pickle
A few weeks ago, I was with 200-some managing partners of public accounting firms at Winning is Everything in Las Vegas, USA. At the same time, Thomas Friedman was with top government, finance and economic officials (plus a bunch of really rich and/or famous people) at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. As I reviewed images from Davos, it occurred to me that both of our meetings were brimming with mostly older, mostly white guys.
It’s an interesting time to be a leader – of a CPA firm, of a multinational bank, or of a country. What makes it interesting is that the parameters and definitions of what it means to lead are being called into question.
Here are the facts as I see them:
* Our leaders don’t have the answers. They don’t have answers because we are in uncharted territory. Without a successful past experience to draw from, our leaders are feeling rudderless. And that’s a pickle for them, because many falsely equate being a leader with having The Answers.
* It’s not our leaders’ jobs to have the answers; it’s their job to discover them. This is a marked mental shift we all need to make. For years, many employees, citizens, members, and patrons have been conditioned to believe that our leaders have The Answers. We give them our patronage in exchange for feelings of safety and security. We want to be led. This is a comforting sentiment – that our leaders will protect and guide us – but it’s not effective in the long term. Greatness is built with the hands of the many, not the few. Some call it “the wisdom of crowds.” Being a good leader today does not mean having the answers; it means midwifing them.
* Past experience is a curse on innovation. As Janet Rae-Dupree wrote in “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike,” “It’s a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.” You’ve heard the expression, “He’s set in his ways”? That’s a verbal cue to what’s happening in executives’ minds as they accumulate experience; their neural pathways are literally being set into ruts. Rae-Dupree continues, “(O)nce you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.” As I wrote in a previous post, twenty years of experience is often one year of experience repeated twenty times. Experience not only matters less than innovation in our current conditions, experience may thwart innovation.
* The next generation plays a critical role in innovating our way through these economic headwinds. History demonstrates that most of the great, transformative innovations on record were created by people before they hit their 40th birthday. This is not an ageist statement; it speaks to the mental ‘ruttedness’ that often accompanies experience, and it’s godmother, age. This is a natural phenomenon. That’s why great organizations throw their newest and youngest employees at great challenges and real work on Day One. These organizations know that when the next generation is given real work and real challenges, they meet it with ‘beginner’s mind,’ free from the curse of past experience. This is not to disregard the wisdom that comes from experience. The Zen Master is highly valued by all traditions and age groups. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that the next generation has important, transformative contributions to make, well before they reach traditional leadership levels.
Now, look around your leadership table and ask yourself, “Do I have the right people to help me innovate through these challenges?” If you doubt it, find some of your best people – those who have not yet been cursed with too much experience and are still limber in their thinking or new to your profession – and throw them at the challenge.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC.