Creative People Are Outsiders
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
True creative thinkers tend to be outsiders, non-conformists, rebels. This is clear. In order to think differently than others, one needs to be apart from others. In order to question established assumptions and find better alternatives, one has to be willing to rebel against the norms rather than unquestionably embrace the norms. Within groups, members are expected to conform to the rules and ways of the group, whether this is formalised in writing or silently understood by the members. Those who question those rules, or worse, break them, are likely to find themselves on the edge of the group, if not ostracised. Indeed, many of the most creative thinkers I know say that they feel on the outskirts of numerous social groups, but not a true member of any of them.
This all rather obvious stuff, is it not? So, why do most managers and consultants in charge of innovation tend to ignore it all together? Rebellious outsiders are brought into the fold or tossed out of the organisation all together. Idea management and crowdsourcing tools tap into the wisdom of the crowds rather than the weird ideas of some outsider who doesn't get how the organsation works. Even Google's famous 80/20 time tends to tap into conformity rather than non-conformity. This is too bad. If organisations kept outsiders on the outside, but brought their insights inside, they could discover a gold mine of potential breakthrough ideas to feed their innovation.
Following the Crowd
The cornerstone of many a corporate innovation initiative is a suggestion scheme, idea management software or crowdsourcing software designed to capture ideas from the masses. These tools allow anyone to submit an idea and inevitably include some kind of voting system so people can vote up the best ideas. The philosophy behind these tools is to tap into the wisdom of the crowd.
Yet, following the crowd is another way of saying "conforming" and the wisdom of the crowd is groupthink. As a result, truly creative outsiders are more likely to spurn than use such tools.
Worse, voting systems are effectively idea popularity contests ensuring that the ideas that best fit the assumptions of the group get the most votes, while ideas that question the assumptions of the group − in other words, the more creative ideas − are voted down.
The result, as most innovation managers have discovered, is that such tools are great for capturing lots of small, predictable, incremental improvement ideas, but lousy for capturing breakthrough ideas. This is not to say that such tools are useless; just that you should understand their strengths and limitations before investing in such software. A continuous stream of improvement ideas is a good thing − but it is not breakthrough innovation.
Innocentive has built a successful open innovation tool that is very different to most idea management and crowdsourcing software tools. Innocentive allows organisations to post detailed challenges to solve specific problems. Individuals and teams do not submit raw ideas; instead they submit detailed solutions. There is no voting. It is not a matter of the most popular idea that wins the prize, rather, sophisticated concepts that can be demonstrated to work (or be very likely to work) are rewarded.
In their paper, The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving, Karim Lakhani, Lars Bo Jeppesen, Peter Lohse and Jill Panetta took a look at problems posted on Innocentive. They found that it was often used by large companies when their own research and development teams could not satisfactorily solve scientific and technical problems. They would then post these problems on Innocentive and offer rewards, typically of tens of thousands of (US) dollars, to individuals or teams that solved them.
What the team found was that problems were most often solved by experts outside the discipline of the problem. Chemistry problems were solved by physicists, physics problems were solved by biologists and so on.
In other words, people best able to solve the problems were outsiders both to the company with the problem and the discipline of the problem. Nevertheless, they tended to be scientists who had sufficient understanding of the terminology and scientific method to solve the problem.
The lesson to be learned here is that if you want breakthrough ideas or solutions to complex problems via software, your best bet is to post very specific problems and invite solutions from outsiders who will have sufficient background to understand the problem, but sufficient distance to be outsiders who can break a few rules and ignore a few assumptions. Within an organisation, this might be done by posing a, for example, packaging problem to a diverse, multi-disciplinal team. Or, it might involve using a tool like Innocentive's, to post a sophisticated problem more widely.
Organisations might also consider tapping into the thinking of new employees, especially recent graduates, who have not yet been indoctrinated into corporate thinking. How often have you seen a bright-eyed young graduate, new to a company, spout out ideas you know to be ridiculous and undoable. The graduate is not stupid. She's simply an outsider not only to your corporate culture, but often to business in general. I suggest that instead of laughing off her ideas as naive, document her more developed ideas and give them a serious review. You might be surprised.
80/20 Time Leads to 80/20 Conformity
You have surely heard about Google's 80/20 time, have you not? Google used to allow its employees to spend 20% of their time on any pet project that interested them. The other 80% was to be spent on approved projects. The idea was that being freed from the constraints of approved projects, employees could be truly innovative. Early on, this seems to have delivered results. Adsense, Gmail and Google Talk were all apparently the result of this programme.
But in recent years, it has been dialed back and eventually axed. Before it was killed off, 20% time was limited to engineers who had to seek approval for their special projects, thus ensuring that those projects conformed to corporate needs. But even before that happened, engineers found that if they spent 100% of their time on sanctioned projects, their performance reviews had higher scores than if they worked on projects that were not delivering results. So, it was not really in their interests to chase after special projects.
My feeling, though it cannot be backed by research, is that hot ideas were not so much result of 20% time, but rather the result of working for what was then an exciting, new company that was transforming the way we used the web. Although engineers felt they belonged to Google culture, they also felt that Google was a corporate outsider and that gave them the freedom to think like outsiders.
Time and growth have inevitably changed the sense of Google being an outsider. It is a big, Fortune 100 company and a cornerstone of much of the world's web use. It is no longer an outsider. Perhaps, this is part of the reasoning behind Google's reorganisation into a group of companies under the holding company Alphabet. New ventures will no longer be Google ventures, but rather will be owned by companies owned by Alphabet. This could give the teams a sense of being outsiders and hence provide them with the intellectual and creative freedom to push norms. It will be interesting to see where this goes.
I believe that a Skunkworks is a better approach to creating a sense of being outsider within an organisation. The term, 'skunkworks' was coined by Lockheed for an autonomous division given the freedom to work on risky projects. Skunkworks typically have a budget to work on projects, but no obligation to achieve a set success rate or short term return on the investment − though it is assumed, of course, that over the longer term, Skunkworks will pay off through the delivery of breakthrough innovations. IBM, Xerox, Boeing, Du Pont and Standard Bank South Africa are among the few organisations that have set up Skunkworks that have developed innovative new products.
By being outside the organisation, being given autonomy and being allowed to break rules, Skunkworks provide an ideal outsider's environment for creative thinking and innovative development. And, indeed, they seem to work well with one big caveat: when Skunkwork projects are submitted to the parent organisation, their value is often not seen by the parent organisation and so opportunities to innovate are missed.
Probably the most famous incident of this nature was the computer mouse developed by Xerox's skunkworks: Parc. Xerox had no idea what to do with it. However, a young Steve Jobs saw the mouse when visiting and asked if he could have the idea. They gave it to him, royalty free. And the rest, as they say, is history. Kodak developed digital photography in their skunkworks, but rejected it as having no real market potential.
Giving employees 20% time to work on creative projects sounds like a good idea, but if employees are expected to conform to corporate norms and want to shine at performance reviews, they quickly learn that it is best not to get too creative with that 20% time. It is better to put this level of resources into a Skunkworks division that is given autonomy, budget and freedom to break corporate rules. Such an environment is far more likely to create a sense of being an outsider that is necessary to develop truly creative ideas. However, do not be too quick to reject the projects that come out of the Skunkworks.
Start Up Benefit
One reason, and there are several, that new start ups can be so innovative is because they see themselves as outsiders, boldly breaking rules and challenging assumptions, in their sectors, to build new businesses. Young companies like Tesla, Uber and AirBnB are outsiders challenging the way we think about cars, local travel and accommodation. However, this outsider benefit seldom lasts forever.
Around 150 years ago, an innovative organisation called the Bell Telephone company disrupted communications with Alexander Graham Bell's patent for the telephone. The Bell company eventually became AT&T, which is a successful company, but is not seen by anyone today as an innovative rule beaker.
Likewise, Henry Ford's innovative production system broke the rules of horse travel and motorcars and his company was an innovator in its time. Today, Ford makes fine cars, but it is not a name that comes to mind for breakthrough automotive innovation.
If you work in a well established company with entrenched products and have an idea for a breakthrough innovation that will disrupt the market, you are more likely to find success by leaving your company, putting together a team, getting some funding and launching an all new company to build and market your idea.
If you are leading a team responsible for innovation on some level, the best thing you can do is to give the team a sense that it is an outsider team, separate from the company and a little special for that. Doing so will give team members a feeling of being outsiders (albeit within the team) with the freedom to break rules, question assumptions and do things in their own way even when that way contradicts the corporate way.
Of course, if you do this, you need to ensure that your team really is apart from the organisation. If you tell them they are outsiders, but criticise members for doing things in new ways or for questioning corporate hegemony, team members will not feel that they are outsiders and, worse, will have reduced trust for you.
Taking teams off site can only help in terms of giving them a sense of independence from the company. Hiring temporary office space for the duration of the project would be ideal, but possibly not realistic. Encouraging teleworking and holding meetings off-site, however, is more realistic and can encourage a sense of being special outsiders.
Corporate Spirit Is Fine and Good But...
Corporate spirit is all fine and good. It ensures employees understand the strategic vision of the firm, fit in and can determine whether or not they are doing well. Corporate spirit can drive firms and give employees a sense of belonging to something special.
But, corporate spirit is not necessarily so good for creativity. Creative thinkers tend to be outsiders who are uncomfortable conforming to standards, especially those that do not make sense to them. Moreover, people who are not exceptionally creative may feel more creative if they feel they are outsiders.
What this means is that if you want to enable a high level of innovation in your company, you need to make some people feel like full-time outsiders. Being 20% outsiders does not seem to work if performance reviews judge people using traditional, corporate, standards.
On the other hand, if your organisation is a relatively new one with fresh ideas and a sense of being outsiders in an established sector, you have tremendous freedom to break old rules and establish new ones. Exploit this opportunity while it lasts.
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