“Essentially, questions about experimentation in the arts are also questions about the relevance of tradition. They are questions, that is to say, about the practical application of traditional elements to contemporary problem situations. Hence, they are also questions about change and continuity.” – Albert Murray, The Hero and the Blues, 71
Innovation is all the rage. Businesses, educational institutions, healthcare organizations, and even government entities have all climbed aboard the “Innovation train” but few seem to know what to pack. Yet, this is an enthusiastic bunch that hangs from the windows shouting – higher profits! Higher test scores! Higher profits! Greater accountability! En route to a dream destination, people expend innumerable resources and too often realize only short-term gains because they haven’t packed well.
Hanging from the windows, passengers en route to Profit Land miss the scenery. They’ve not brought cameras; they’ve left sunglasses at the office, tanning lotion at the drugstore, and none have maps, a GPS, or first aid kit. You see, the journey to Profit Land is through the tunnel of Innovation but there are thorny branches along the route and wind gusts of hurricane force, trembling terrain and blazing rays of sun. Culture teaches passengers how to survive the journey, it has done so since the beginning of time through traditions that have helped people endure amidst catastrophes more sinister than financial meltdowns. The purveyors of this knowledge are artists. Why? Because art forces us to realize our humanity, to emote, relate to one another, build relationships necessary for our survival and develop coping mechanisms for navigating the tricky terrain of life and its labyrinth of personal and professional relationships. Art unsettles us, brings us out of our “comfort zones” and forces us to engage.
Relationships matter in business
In a McKinsey Quarterly article, “Developing Better Change Leaders,” the authors offer the example of “Annie, Conor and Pierre” to present the challenges and successes of navigating change. In each case, developing strong interpersonal relationships prevailed; demonstrating empathy, engaging socially, and creating bonds of trust led to improved outcomes. The improved outcomes, readers are told, serve as examples of “innovation”; change happened because exemplary leadership skills were honed and implemented and the success was measured in increased returns.
Through business model innovation, companies hope to restructure their organizations to leverage internal innovation capabilities. This is really smart and gets to the heart of what drives innovation – (cultural) identity. Instead of identifying innovation by an end result, profits, these businesses move towards deep integration of internal segments and create a tightly woven diverse fabric where different ideas and practices come into direct contact with one another and yield better ideas and best practices. Adaptability is then realized because a company becomes adept in navigating change and hence is resilient in times of corporate duress, those very times when flexibility is tested. Relying, as some companies do, “solely on product innovation” misses the point of identifying and then leveraging core beliefs and the associated corporate coping mechanisms that lead to continuance even in the face of change.
The Benefits of integration
The benefits of integrating business and revenue models are many. When these models are integrated, revenue is cast as an extension of the company’s core beliefs and becomes a measure of the extent to which employees are cognizant of and “buy-in” to corporate strategies, function systematically and adapt to change. Moreover, company differentiation is realized and when each business is made aware of its unique identifying features and offerings, the possibilities of scaling upwards are realized. This information is vital to branding. As the authors note, “A good product that is embedded in an innovative business model… is less easily shunted aside. Someone might come up with a better MP3 player than Apple’s tomorrow, but few of the hundreds of millions of consumers with iPods and iTunes accounts will be open to switching brands.” This leads to an environment of theoretical noncompetition because uniqueness cannot be duplicated.
Nilfoer Merchant always has something insightful to offer. You should follow her Tweets (@nilofer) for ideas such as the following: “Innovation happens when ideas, resources and constraints collide” (4/18/2012 6:50PM). Indeed, like passengers on the train, ideas must come into contact with one another in order to be tested for relevance and viability. “To Innovate, we need to check what assumptions we carry forth from the past… that need to be released.” (4/18/2012 7:00PM) Or rather, we must discern what works and what does not, if we are to endure and perhaps prevail. “The real question” Nilofer asks, “is why are we doing what we are doing and what measures *that *.” (4/18/2012 6:59PM). Are we simply interested in achieving short-term gains and turning a quick profit? Or, are we invested long-term to the process of innovation, developing better business practices and relationships and working towards improvement of the human condition? She notes, “If we borrow the metrics of finance (scale) to fuel social change, we are using the wrong measures” (4/18/2012 6:58PM) because such measures capture tangential gains; the journey to long-term gains, cultural sustainability, is deeply embedded.
The passengers on the Innovation train must not only board but must engage one another as they yell from the windows, lest the ride become one of simple and unimaginative self-interest leading to a mad rush for a single pot of gold at journey’s end. Instead, by engaging one another, distinct identities can be realized; and through differentiation, each company can recognize its own pot of gold. The experience of the journey can inform practices, decisions, and become habits that create a tradition within which innovation can occur.
As Albert Murray reminds his readers, “The traditional element is precisely the one which has endured or survived from situation to situation from generation to generation… not only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs.” (Hero, 71-72) In other words, businesses seeking to innovate or to create the conditions within which innovation can occur, should work to identify their core beliefs so that strategies for success can be discerned, implemented, duplicated and disseminated throughout the organization. Furthermore, while tradition is often critiqued as being stagnant, it is the direct opposite. Its hybrid nature merely gives the appearance of a singular entity but hides its diverse inner workings. Never judge a book by its cover.
How Do we Assess Change?
Business and organizations of every sort are keen to rely on financial metrics for assessing the success of programs and practices. Determining success in restructuring something as significant as organizational culture requires asking different questions that queries that yield a more compete picture. These are some initial ideas:
- Monitor each stage of an implementation: beginning, middle, and end.
- Ask the same questions at each juncture.
- Ask probing questions yield depth of insight into areas such as: company mission statement; the way in which specific jobs help fulfill company goals; organizational structure (how many “bosses” can you name? what segments are related to yours and what are their tasks?); the relationship between non work support systems on workplace productivity; personnel “hidden” talent and interests (Multilanguage proficiency, mathematical or technological expertise, hobbies, volunteer work, musical tastes, etc.).
- Post assessment “follow-ups”
Check your Ticket to Ride…
In the United States, the blues and jazz form major cultural markers of identity and through their study, lessons can be learned in areas such as: collaboration; talent identification; resilience; strategy; innovation; leadership and competition. While companies seeking to work with US businesses can learn from the blues and jazz, US businessmen would do well to learn their own culture so as to root their corporate confidence in something that holds when storms occur and counter the historic and ongoing stigma of the US being profit-driven soulless.
For now… The humanistic qualities that served Annie, Conor and Pierre, are honed through art as a matter of disciplinary practice and professional viability. Artists are change agents, conductors on the train of Innovation and when they check your ticket to ride, check your ego – listen, learn, and innovate – meaningfully.