Can we support each other to be different?
Let’s start with a game.
I’ll say a word, and you think of any image – whatever comes to mind.
Ready? Here we go.
Got your picture?
One question: are there any people in it?
I fell right into this trap, drawing a tree with a V-shaped bird. We’re so focused on being human, that we think of nature as something beyond us. We build imaginary walls around our lives – and they constrain us. We fail to see the full range of possibilities for give and take.
If a business wants to innovate, it needs to open itself as far as possible to ideas beyond its current reach. Yet many organisations today have a fortress-like mentality: a rigid sense of who we are, what we do, and where the boundaries of our remit lie. It’s built for good reasons: to weather a world of competition, and be easily identified in crowded markets.
But for ideas, the lifeblood of innovation, this is all a bit restrictive.
Ideas are like teenagers. They love a good party where they meet other ideas that challenge and flirt with them. Then they go off and mull things over, try things out. That’s how they mature. And like young adults, they come under all sorts of pressures very early in life, like deciding what they want to be, defining their identity, settling down with property. Product, brand, IP. In the rush for self-actualisation – to stand tall and say ‘I made it!’ – young ideas miss out on experiences that could make them richer in the long run.
The innovation theorist Steven Johnson argues that the Enlightenment started in Europe’s coffeehouses, where ideas would get together in a relaxed way and mingle. He stops short of presenting this as an explicit case for social diversity — the more ideas in the mix, the wider the range of possibilities that might emerge. Nor did the leaders of the Enlightenment make this link: women were frequently banned from cafes in England and France, and a whole host of discriminatory factors (means, class, race, and so on) kept others out.
Diversity (another word for ‘variety’) is the spice of innovation – but in itself it’s not enough. We need to be able to relate to each other in ways that tease out our differences, value them and amplify them. But too frequently our organisations ask us to conform.
This is how Omar Ishrak describes his integration into General Electric, after being recruited for his specialist knowledge of the ultrasound market:
“I had all these ideas and they were probably correct, but I didn’t really know how to communicate them in the GE language… It was more than simply grasping the lingo. The language gave a business context and a systematic view to how initiatives could be done…” Conaty, B. and Charan, R. (2010) The Talent Masters, New York: Crown Business, pp.83–86
Ishrak grasped the lingo and the way of doing things so well that he went on to become CEO of GE Healthcare. But what was lost in the adaptation process? What aspects of his former experience did he leave outside GE’s walls?
Ishrak credits his mentor, John Trani, with coaching him into GE’s practices. But do relationships have to support conformity? Can we instead support each other to be different?
Going back to ecosystems, there’s a beautiful example of relationships supporting diversity in Dan Barber’s TED talk, ‘How I fell in love with a fish’.
Barber goes to a fish farm to understand the origins of the most delicious fish he ever set his taste buds on. That fish farm is built on the site of a former cattle ranch, which in turn had been built on drained wetlands. The drainage process to make this possible had killed 90% of the birdlife. The owner of the fish farm, Miguel, had reversed the drainage, reconfiguring the canal system so that the water flowed back in, thereby restoring 27,000 acres of wetland on which to rear bass, mullet, shrimp and eel.
Barber describes how, on his tour of the farm, Miguel kept pointing out other creatures living in the thick marshland: ‘a rare Black-shouldered Kite … the phytoplankton and their mineral needs … algaes [sic] and strange aquatic plants’. When Barber asks him asked him how he became such an expert on fish, he replies, ‘Fish? I didn’t know anything about fish. I’m an expert in relationships.’ That, he argues, is why his fish taste so good.
They turn a corner and find thousands of pink flamingos. Barber is flabbergasted and asks, ‘Miguel, isn’t a thriving bird population the last thing you want on a fish farm?’ No, says Miguel: ‘We farm extensively, not intensively. This is an ecological network. The flamingos eat the shrimp. The shrimp eat the phytoplankton. So the pinker the belly, the better the system.’
In one year alone, 600,000 birds from more than 250 different species can be found on the property, making it one of the most important private bird sanctuaries in Europe. The farm, Miguel explains, loses 20% of its fish and fish eggs to these birds. But while their presence is a threat to some fish, it is a bonus to the system’s health as a whole.
We’re a long way from recognising the value of complex relationships, and cultivating them in such as way that can support the growth of ideas. One good example I found is at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, which aims to ‘foster breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of our universe, from the smallest particles to the entire cosmos’.
Perimeter has a strong relationship with Stephen Hawking, and in 2011 it opened its Hawking Centre in order ‘to create a physical space that could not just reflect the beauty and complexity of the research done at Perimeter – but enhance and inspire it’. The emphasis is on enabling exchange: writable walls in almost every space, places for informal interaction, from herb gardens to concert venues… Perimeter describes its culture as one “that thrives on new perspectives”. As such, it has a zero-tolerance policy towards any form of discrimination.
Let’s play another game.
I’m going to say a word, and you have to draw it. Ready? Here we go.
What did you leave out?