Editor’s note: Eric Jackson, a technology consultant and developer, is a regular contributor to Local Tech Wire. His column appears on Tuesdays.
BLACK MOUNTAIN,Benjamin Disraeli said: “No government can be long secure without formidable opposition.” True in the political realm, this is no less true in the corporate one.
Now is probably a good time to remember this, as we talk about the necessity for innovation and then, in the same breath, assert the need to protect ourselves and our industries from foreign competition, immigration, file sharing, and the evils of open source software, among others.
Do we really want to secure our economic future by building our capacity for innovation? If so, then protection is not the answer; in fact, protection stifles innovation. We need rather to embrace those things that most effectively foster business innovation. These fall into three basic categories: creative sources, spurs to effective execution, and solid connections to markets and other constituencies.
Last month we explored the importance of diversity as an aid to innovation, primarily through the first of these three areas. In this article, we add in the second category and consider opposition, adversity, challenge and diversity collectively as a wellspring of both creative inspiration and an excellent foundation for the discipline required to execute well. As Theodore Levitt pointed out, innovation requires more than just creativity, the ability to think up new things: “Innovation is doing new things.”
The reasons that opposition and adversity contribute are simple. First, of course, when a business is engaged in a serious struggle, the desire to survive can be a powerful motivator not just to perform, but to improve performance. Second, even the simplest effective opposition can aid in questioning one’s assumptions and potentially gaining new perspective. Finally, failures are one of the best sources of learning, if they are exploited as such.
So the question becomes this: if you would prefer not to simply wait for the tremendous opportunity for learning that the failure of your business might bring, how can you be proactive about facing, even seeking out the opposition and adversity that can accelerate your organization’s learning and hone its ability to execute?
Here are a few thoughts.
Welcome competition: Avoiding competition is a great short-term strategy, but in the long term it is liable to hurt your business. Just like an athlete, it is difficult for a business to continually increase performance without a competitor. Good competition provides motivation and a yardstick. It is a resource: a source of ideas and information, a way to test your products and strategies and, one hopes, in the end a driver of value for your customer.
Collaborate with critics: If you are in one of the many lucky industries to have social, environmental, or political critics, take advantage of them! A defensive posture rarely wins anyone over and can become a tremendous drain on resources. Finding ways to actively collaborate with critics will not only help with your public image, it can bring you a significant competitive advantage as well.
Experiment to failure: Sustained, successful innovation does not come about by finding some formula that yields one successful project after another. It comes through intelligently pushing the limits, a combination of conservative efforts likely to succeed with a moderate return and risky experiments with the potential for a high return. If your business avoids the latter entirely and never faces failures, it is probably headed eventually for the greater learning opportunity mentioned above.
Foster productive internal conflict: Conflict is difficult and most organizations fall naturally into a mode in which overt conflict is avoided. Unfortunately, this usually just drives the conflict underground where it becomes a drain on the organization. Equally important, this mode deprives the organization of the learning and creative production that arises from healthy disagreement. Find ways to allow and manage conflict in the open: build a culture that encourages constructive criticism, foster internal competition with clear rules, even try gimmicks like appointing a weekly contrarian whose job is to constructively find fault with the company’s strategy. An organization that learns to harness and work through conflict, rather than bury or just get through it, is an organization with strong potential to remain vital, creative, and effective.
The final thought returns us to the theme of diversity with which we began: deliberately and actively seeking to include and engage people and organizations who are different from you and your organization has the potential by itself to lead to productive clashes of opinion. Realizing that potential, however, requires giving that diversity real power — more on that next week.
Previous articles on diversity & difference:
Ideas? Suggestions? Contact Eric at email@example.com
Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.