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9 Jun 2011

Innovation: Challenges from a Relationship Perspective

Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Creation Myth” in the May 16, 2011 edition of The New Yorker was the best article I’ve read about the challenges of managing relationships in an innovative environment.

You need two key attributes to manage relationships in this environment:

  1. Comfort with the tensions that can come from extremely diverse personalities working together
  2. Discipline to overcome the tendency to score failures

Long ago, I believed creativity was a flash of brilliance that popped into someone’s head. Reading about Picasso drastically changed this. He often did dozens of sketches and renditions before he painted the final piece, if he even intended that piece to be the final one.

Mature red oaks can drop 15,000 acorns in a season; however, few become 100-year oaks. Those are the memorable ones though. As Gladwell mentioned, Steve Jobs and Xerox overlooked some fabulous innovations (high definition screens and the mouse respectively). However, the ones they did capture, the mouse and the laser printer altered their businesses. Innovation is about the one you caught, not the ones that got away or never materialized.

Here’s my nomenclature for the three personalities Gladwell indicates as essential to innovation:

  1. Visionary: crank out many ideas
  2. Builder: engineer ideas
  3. Commercialist: make the idea sellable

You need many ideas. Remember the oak tree. The winnowing down of those ideas will encourage many opportunities for intense friction among these personalities. However, many managers prefer a quiet, efficient team. They terminate “troublemakers” as some of those in Gladwell’s piece were threatened.

Innovation is an act of aggression on existing perspectives cured in concrete. Upsetting that is anything but clean and quiet. It’s about large numbers, a lot of work and much tension.

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