Innovation or innovators? 1

David Harrison, Managing Partner of True Potential LLP, The Open University MBA alumnus

Innovation or innovators

Edited transcript of Business Perspectives Video: Innovation or innovators?

“Most of the organisations I see, they train everybody”

“I have observed first hand that it’s about selection. I’m not necessarily a nature versus nurture addict if you like, but if I was, it would be nature. But if you look at any elite organisation in the world, it will probably be down to selection. So if you look at British Special Forces, as an example away from financial services, they don’t train people until they’ve selected them, on a course of selection criteria which rules out just about every human being possible.  The ones that get through, they train them.”

“So what people do is set criteria, some sort of hurdle that most people can’t get over, “therefore they are weak, and let’s train that weakness”. And I don’t. I think I ignore weakness, I work with strengths.  One strength can be innovation that you have within individuals in an organisation, but there will be other individuals who don’t have that as a strength. People then tend to get angry and say “everyone is creative”, “are you saying I’m boring and dull or whatever?”. And if you are in finance, you may say “I wanted to be in finance, boring and dull, I didn’t want to make a mistake and cost everybody millions of pounds”. So there has to be those people, and those people, I believe, are happy doing that job, because they are naturally endowed with the ability to be careful, to be numerate, to do the things which other people may find boring. They probably think that all creative people are glib, they are chaotic, they create a real mess for these people to tidy up.  And I think it’s just recognising in an organisation that there are different people. And I want to separate that form of creativity, that form of real innovation, which may find you in a different market, with a different product and so on and so forth, from what I call the ordinary everyday creativity, which most people have, which can also lead by the way to big leaps, such as improving a process we’ve already got.

So if you look at the organisation we have got, we have got lots of people, they are mostly partners, and I think that helps creativity because essentially what they are doing is,  if they bring something to us, then it is to their advantage as well. The more they do of that, the more shares they are likely to have, the more important they are going to be in terms of value for the organisation.”

“It’s the culture, stupid!” 3

Guest blogger:
David MayleDavid Mayle, Lecturer in Management and a member of  The Open University’s Centre for Human Resource and Change Management.

Talking of quotes, I’ve always been fond of Nick Negroponte (he of MIT Media Lab fame) and his

“The best way to guarantee a steady stream of new ideas is to make sure that each person in your organization is as different as possible from the others. Under these conditions, and only these conditions, will people maintain varied perspectives and demonstrate their knowledge in different ways.”

Trouble is, such diversity is a necessary but not sufficient pre-condition for innovation capability; that people are different is not enough – they’ve got to be allowed to think and behave differently too.

Which brings us to culture. I’m not going to dwell on definitions, at least in part because all too often we believe – erroneously – that if we can pin a label on something, it helps us to understand it. If only.[1] Culture is deep; culture is slippery; culture is unmanageable; all of the usual claims are true, partial, and largely unhelpful.

In very crude terms, culture may indeed be – at a quite deep level – the way the place ‘works’, but for the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to tweak that a little, into ‘… so what does one have to do to get on around here?’ My motives should become clear a little later.

If culture is such an elusive concept, how do cultures emerge in the first place? In the beginning, an organisation has purpose but generally few people; if the initial ideas prove successful, it usually grows. This means a balance between two processes: recruitment (= who comes on board) and retention (= who stays).

Let’s take recruitment first. I often tell my students that there are two rites of passage en route to becoming a good manager. The first is to stop recruiting in your own image[2]; most of us eventually achieve this. The second is to start recruiting people who disagree with you[3]. This is much more difficult and sadly many don’t get that far, notwithstanding its increased popularity after both Gordon Brown and Barack Obama started recycling some of Abraham Lincoln’s political philosophy. Given these two rules, it should be quite clear that recruitment, who does it and against what criteria (explicit or otherwise), is a crucial lever on culture.

Then there’s retention; if folk find the environment conducive they’ll probably stay, if not they’re more likely to leave (going back to the quote at the start, do they feel they’re allowed to be different or do they feel pressure to conform?). I will also argue that retention is intimately tied up with the reward system in place, which needs to be three things: it needs to be perceived as being fair, it needs to be congruent with the organisation’s aims[4], and it needs to at least allow (or even actively encourage) people to be different. People who are rewarded by the organisation are the role models, to be emulated by all those others who want to ‘get on’. And if only one sort of behaviour gets rewarded, bang goes your diversity.

Some of us believe passionately in the power of innovation; problem is, if culture is so vital, and recruitment and retention/reward are key, who’s got their hands on the levers?


[1]    OK, if you insist on definitions, the seminal article is probably Schein (1990) ‘Organizational Culture’, American Psychologist (February)

[2]    If you doubt it, go back to your Belbin, or maybe some Myers-Briggs, or maybe just look again at the Negroponte quote.

[3]    I cite John Cleese in a famous video where he quotes Sam Goldwyn: “I don’t want any Yes Men in this organisation, I want people to speak their mind. Even if it does cost them their job!”

[4]    The classic text is Steven Kerr (1975), ‘On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B’, Academy of Management Journal