Catching the "Wave of the Future"

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“Today, if you want to catch the wave of the future, you have to start surfing a lot closer to the fringe”. From Deviants, Inc, by  Ryan Matthews and Watts Wacker, Fastcompany, Issue 56. 

When the global economic situation becomes uncertain, one of the effects seems to be that people sort of ‘bunker down’; continuing to do what they’ve always done – what’s become the norm or safe - developing a bit of a ‘siege’ mentality and pretty much closing off from being creative. On closer examination, it seems that these are often ‘survival’ techniques aimed at reducing stress, ambiguity and fear, and which might simply be geared at making sure you keep your job!  

As Maslow might very well have pointed out, it’s pretty hard to be contributing to ‘corporate self-actualization’ when your employees are getting a clear message that their means of putting a roof over their heads and food on the table, appears to be very much under threat. It’s hardly surprising then that people react this way, especially in a world where things like climate change and terrorism seem to be in the news constantly. 

Disturbingly though, the net effect is a drastic reduction in the return on your company’s investment in human capital, and the loss of the potential to reap the rewards of one of the very things that make us human – the ability to think creatively.  

A little bit of research turns up some pretty impressive names in terms of companies and products that were founded in the past, even during economically challenging times, names that represent companies and products that are all about innovations such as Motorola; Hewlett Packard; Xerox; Unisys; Texas Instruments; Purina; Nestlé’s Nescafe; Revlon and Converse. 

So why is it that some companies don’t just survive or thrive, but even have the courage to set up, or reinvent themselves during difficult times? Part of the answer lies in fostering a culture that actively encourages positive leadership, welcomes new ideas and condones the notion that the smart people you’ve employed come with a bunch of strengths and skills, and are also capable of taking calculated risks in the interests of improving the bottom line.  

A very wise leader once told me that he’d far rather people ask him for forgiveness than permission. When you think about it, so much is contained in that statement – I trust you and I trust your judgment; I know mistakes are part of learning and might lead to totally new ways of looking at things; I value your taking the initiative. As Jim Collins once said, “Although the invention of the Post-it note might have been somewhat accidental, the creation of the 3M environment that allowed it was anything but accidental”. 

The question is, just how much and what kind of creativity, does your company ‘tolerate’? In the December 2007 issue of FastCompany, Ryan Matthews and Watts Wacker’s article Deviants, Inc. outlines their thoughts on innovation. Deviance they say “… is the source of all innovation. It’s the wellspring of ideas, new products, new personalities, and, ultimately, new markets …nothing more or less than any one of us taking one measurable step away from the middle of the road.” And what do they say gets in the way of more companies taking that first tentative step?   

“…in one company after another, corporate culture serves as an organizational prophylactic, protecting business-as-usual businesses from new opportunities. In truth, many Corporate cultures work to eliminate deviant employees. Corporate culture works to discourage deviant ideas. Corporate culture punishes deviant behavior and attitudes. And, of course, as a result, most large companies lose the opportunity to discover the future and get there first.” 

It’s imperative then that in order to have a competitive edge, you need to have a creative edge. In today’s world, the ability to adapt, change, create, innovate and reinvent is an essential skill. Thinking in a new or innovative way is the key to organizations confidently and clearly knowing what’s important to keep doing, what to let go of, and to then come up with new approaches and solutions to a diverse array of critical situations, problems, and challenges.  

In closing, Mathews and Wacker offer five sobering thoughts to consider when assessing your company’s creative edge: 

1. Innovations -- from products, services, ideas, and even celebrities move from the fringe to the center. 
2. The distance from the fringe of society to the center of the social convention has been compressed, and the pace of making the trip has been accelerated dramatically. 
3. Social convention has eroded to the point where it no longer authoritatively defines reality for society. 
4. Historically, the fringe was defined by the mainstream. Today, the fringe defines what the mainstream looks like. 
5. Most companies that say they are seeking "the edge" of fashion, customer service, technology, or consumer trends are, in fact, picking up on deviance well after it has begun its journey to the center 

So, a couple of questions to consider as you ponder the future… 

  • What is it that seems impossible for us today, yet if we were able to make it happen, would totally change the results we and our people are getting now, and for the future? 

  • What would someone who had a different approach to ‘deviance’, perhaps a different set of beliefs or culture, do or say about our situation? What would they see that we can’t? 

In the words of the famous Physicist Tom Hirschfield, “if you don’t ask ‘why this?’ often enough, eventually someone will ask ‘why you’?”

- Penny Nesbitt