What can poet Charles Bukowski tell us about the psychology of innovation?
Every company wants to be innovative, few are. Why? Paul Simpson suggests we need to learn from poetry, furniture design, rock and roll and social psychology
The movie Tales Of Ordinary Madness, a fictionalised pseudo-biopic of the writer Charles Bukowski, will make you gape, cover your eyes, laugh out loud and titter uneasily all in the space of a few minutes. The film’s comic highlight is a scene where Ben Gazzara, as the Bukowski figure, wins a writer’s fellowship, turns up at a large office block and is given a cubicle (which eerily prefigures the cubicles in Scott Adams’s Dilbert cartoon), a bare desk, a typewriter, some blank sheets of paper and is more or less told to write. Things do not go well. The self-proclaimed poet of the streets does not warm to the corporate, white-bread world. After a few false starts on the typewriter, he decides the most constructive thing he can do is to screw up a few sheets of paper into tiny balls and hurl them at his fellow writers. Rejection and ejection quickly follow.
The mismatch between this Beat poet and the office environment that smacks of IBM in its starchiest dress-code days makes for great comedy. But the lesson in the laughter is that companies, in a laudable bid to make their organisation more innovative, do something very much like this day in, day out.
Ellie Runcie, the Design Council’s technology project leader, has helped many high-tech companies to innovate, and can reel off a list of similar absurdities. “There are people working in superb, luxurious, state-of-the-art centres designed to stimulate innovation who will tell you that the environment doesn’t make them feel very innovative at all. There are people on team-building outward-bound courses who feel very uncomfortable with the falsity of it all. Others go to boot camps, which can be exhilarating, but somehow when you’re back at work on Monday, it’s back to business as usual. Yet there are people who don’t have a budget, or much space, and have many obstacles to overcome, but who innovate successfully.” Much as Bukowski, free of corporate constriction, managed to write some more half-decent poetry and lightly fictionalised autobiographies when he wasn’t distracted by booze or lust.
Stop looking for the next 10 commandments
The explanation for this apparent paradox is, Runcie says, “that innovation is about culture”. Yet most of the books that promise to make your company more innovative treat it as a process, usually including a list of steps which vary from book to book depending on the author’s philosophy and experience. Homo sapiens has, since the 10 commandments, had a bit of a soft spot for concise lists which tell us what to do. They imply that if we follow their advice we will be suitably rewarded. But the bad news about innovation is that suggestion-boxes, brainstorming sessions, away days, consultants and 183 techniques to encourage creativity (as listed on Wikipedia) won’t, by themselves, transform your business into the kind of free-thinking, ground-breaking, market-leading corporate utopia you might be hoping for.
For Robert B. Cialdini, regents professor of psychology at Arizona State University and author of the million-selling book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, one reason that companies don’t succeed as often as they should is that innovation starts with recruitment. “The fit between an employee’s values and a company’s values has been proven to make a difference to what contribution they make and whether, two years after they join, they’re still at the company.” Bukowski’s exit from fellowshipland was rapid and spectacular because the mismatch was so glaringly grotesque. More mundane mismatches take longer to spot but can be just as unproductive for employee and employer.
If our peers act innovatively we want to emulate them: ‘Canned laughter makes us laugh louder and longer – especially for poor sitcoms’
Research by Harvard Business School backs Cialdini’s strictures on the importance of recruitment. Studies suggest that, although some individuals may be more creative than others, almost every individual can be creative in the right circumstances. They also suggest that even a great training programme will probably not make an employee significantly more creative.
The Sun doesn't shine on Roy Orbison
One of the most famous photographs in the story of rock'n'roll emphasises Cialdini's point about fit. The picture of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis jamming at a piano in Sun Studios in Memphis one Saturday in the summer of 1956 tells a hidden story.
The million-dollar quartet, as this session (and the album that was later released from it) was known, could have been a quintet. Missing from the picture is Roy Orbison, a greater natural singer than Lewis, Perkins or Cash. But on Sun's famous yellow label he had just one hit single. Sam Phillips, who owned Sun, wanted to revolutionise popular music with songs that fused black and white music and country and blues. Presley, Cash, Perkins and Lewis instinctively understood Phillips's ambition and believed in it. Orbison wasn't inspired by the goal and spent four years in the wilderness before topping the charts with the first of his trademark semi-operatic pop tragedies.
The value fit matters, says Cialdini, because innovation is, in part, a process of change and under that pressure we, as a species, behave differently: “When things change, we are hard-wired to become risk averse to a fault. We over-compensate. It makes sense if you think about it. In the Stone Age, if something changed drastically, sticking to your terrain might have been the difference between survival and being killed by a mammoth.”
Cialdini suggests managers should do something that sounds counter-intuitive to turn our natural tendency to play it safe to their advantage: “Be upfront about it. Explain clearly what stands to be lost if the company fails to seize this particular opportunity.” That might sound unduly negative but Nobel Prize-winning research by Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky into how we behave in risky situations supports Cialdini. The subjects in their studies were invariably more risk-seeking when threatened with a loss than when offered a reward.
“If you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in trouble”
Managing innovation is a delicate art. It’s easy for a young company to be pulled in conflicting directions by the different demands of marketing, product development and finance as each department is getting different kinds of feedback from different sets of people. So easy that Runcie has even developed a grid designed to overcome this problem which some of the companies she has worked with have used as a virtual mission statement. Equally, she says, it’s easy for what she calls “pockets of innovation” in big companies to wither away if they don’t have a champion within the organisation.
“Companies need”, Cialdini says, “to set up systems that ensure collaborative exchanges whether or not the collaboration seems necessary to the management. To do any less is a fool’s gamble.” This is why, Runcie insists, “We believe that innovation is a contact sport. You can’t brief people just by saying ‘We’re going in this direction and I’m going to take you with me’.”
Cialdini says the follow-the-leader syndrome is dangerous for two reasons: it encourages bosses to go it alone and tacitly gives other team members permission to forget their responsibilities. “It’s been scientifically proven that three people will be better than one at solving problems, even if that one person is the smartest person in the team.”
To prove his point, Cialdini cites an interview given by James Watson who, with Francis Crick, discovered the double helix-structure of DNA. “He was asked how they had solved the problem ahead of an array of highly accomplished rival investigators and at first he ticked off a set of unsurprising contributory factors but then he said something that stunned me. He said he and Crick had succeeded because they weren’t the most intelligent of the scientists pursuing the answer.” The smartest scientist was called Rosalind Franklin who, Watson said, “was so intelligent she rarely sought advice”. The duo’s victory in the race to crack the DNA code prompted Watson to observe: “If you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in trouble.”
Cialdini says there are two reasons why Watson is right. “The lone problem-solver can’t match the diversity of knowledge and perspectives of the multiperson unit. The diversity of input can stimulate thinking processes that wouldn’t have developed in internal monologues. The solution seeker who goes it alone loses the power of parallel processing. A team distributes tasks among its members, the lone operator must perform each task sequentially.”
What canned laughter tells us about teamwork
For Cialdini, teamwork taps into one of the basic drivers of human behaviour. “The principle of social proof is so pervasive that we don’t even recognise it. Birds flock, cattle herd and one of the ways that we identify an action as appropriate is if others are doing it,” he says. On a very basic level, Caldini says this is why, though no one admits to liking canned laughter on sitcoms, most of the big US TV networks still use it: “Research shows that canned merriment makes us laugh louder and longer – and that it’s especially effective for poor sitcoms.” If our peers react innovatively we want to emulate them. “If your project is being resisted, for example, by a group of veteran employees, ask another old-timer to speak up for it. Peer power, used horizontally not vertically, is much more powerful than another speech from the boss.”
Writing, visualising and prototyping can stimulate creativity, innovation and the flow of new ideas. Runcie encourages teams to write the “fantasy press release, the dream business plan”. Cialdini cites scores of research papers and historical events that prove that even something as simple as writing deepens every individual’s commitment to the project. It is, he says, the reason why all those competitions on the back of cereal packets encouraged us to write in saying, in no more than 10 words, “I like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies because…” The very act of writing it makes us more likely to believe it.
Captains, collectives and lie detector tests
The wrong kind of leadership in this process will lead to what Cialdini calls “captainitis, the regrettable tendency of team members to opt out of team responsibilities that are properly theirs”. He calls it captainitis because, he says, “crew members of multipilot aircraft exhibit a sometimes deadly passivity when the flight captain makes a clearly wrong-headed decision.” This behaviour is not, he says, unique to air travel, it can happen in any workplace. He cites a study where 22 nurses were phoned by a doctor (who they had never met) and told to administer double the usual daily dose of a drug that had not yet been cleared for hospital use. Only one nurse questioned the order.
Authority doesn’t have to inhibit innovation but it often does. The issue is well illustrated by two polar opposites: the Memphis design collective and William Shockley, inventor of the transistor. Shockley was a brilliant man, perhaps constitutionally incapable of genuine teamwork, but shrewd enough to hire the best young minds in California when, in the 1950s, he launched a semiconductor company. But he managed those minds catastrophically, becoming so domineering that when a secretary cut her thumb on a broken drawing pin, he insisted she had been attacked and demanded the staff take lie detector tests. In 1957 many of his researchers – dubbed the “traitorous eight” by their betrayed leader – quit. He never really succeeded in business again.
Creative industries are an important contributor to innovation. Design often holds the key to turning R&D into commercial products
The tale of the Memphis design collective – who took their name from, and were inspired by, the Bob Dylan song Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again – is a feel-good story, showing what can be achieved when a group of young designers, prompted by the Italian architectural grandee Ettore Sottsass, were encouraged to develop a completely new range of furniture. The only rule, to use a cliché popular with certain Hollywood scriptwriters, was that there were no rules. Experimenting with form, function, colour and materials, their exuberant post-modernism was so successful in the 1980s that members of the collective began to feel they were being feted and persecuted like rock stars.
Many companies pay lip-service to the Memphis collective ideal yet, according to their employees, behave more like Shockley. Innovation can – and should – be both messy, in the exploration of ideas, and disciplined, in the pursuit of a goal. Too much autocracy and too little autonomy can stifle creativity. Rather than choose between two styles of leadership – one autocratic, one laissez faire – some theorists, like the leading environmentalist Gary Tabor, talk of the “servant leader”, someone who leads from behind, taking pride in collective accomplishment and giving credit where it is due.
Cialdini says: “Leaders should encourage everyone to contribute and simultaneously assure all concerned that every recommendation is important to making the right decision and will be given full attention. That may not sound like much of a commitment but, properly implemented, it’s more than enough to stop egos feeling bruised and employees being discouraged if their proposed action isn’t adopted.”
The frustrating thing about innovation is that though there are lots of approaches, there are, says Runcie, no secret shortcuts, magic formulas or silver bullets. But a manager who wants to create a truly innovative culture can make their job a lot easier by recognising a few psychological realities. Movie producer Sam Goldwyn – the Goldwyn in Metro Goldwyn Mayer – wasn’t recognised as especially innovative but then he did say: “I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everyone to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs.” You can find such tales of ordinary madness in the workplace every day and the cost becomes most apparent when companies try to innovate.
Handle with extreme care
The search for creativity in business has inspired some truly off-the-wall techniques. Like these.
- Bunches of bananas
To break out of too much left-brain literal thinking, staff are encouraged to say something provocative, or throw in a joke or image to stimulate lateral thought. As with comedy, the art is in the delivery, so this may not work for all.
A technique invented by Michael Michalko in which you bring in a random word from a dictionary, list things associated with that word and try to force connections between the random word and the challenge you face.
- Cherry split
State the challenge in two words. Split the challenge into two attributes, split those into two attributes, and keep splitting until you feel you have enough to work with, or you feel as if your brain is about to burst. And then try to reassemble the attributes.
As simple as saying ‘I wish I could...’, this is designed to encourage people to express their aspirations. Anyone who hums the Stevie Wonder song has to leave the room.
On why innovation is central to the UK economy and design is central to innovation
From climate change to healthcare, research and innovation are key to tackling today’s critical issues. The government places science and innovation at the heart of its economic strategy, providing funding for projects as diverse as biofuels, robotic stem cell research and pacemakers powered by the movement of the human body. Since 1997, we’ve more than doubled the science budget to £3.4bn a year – half the DTI’s budget.
Innovation and business success have always gone hand in hand. Research shows that companies that integrate design into their business thinking are less likely to compete on price; they tend to be more innovative, produce more and sell more. UK businesses maintain a competitive advantage globally by having the best solutions to customer problems: we have distinctive skills in innovation and creativity that we can use to produce high-value goods and services.
The government has taken the lead in encouraging investment in research and development, and introduced R&D tax credits to stimulate innovation. They are worth £600m a year to UK businesses, and either reduce a company’s tax bill or, for some small- and medium-sized companies not in profit, provide a cash sum.
We want to achieve an R&D spend of 2.5% of GDP by 2014, from a 2006 base of 1.9%. Over the last three years, government and business have jointly invested nearly £1bn in R&D and knowledge transfer through the DTI’s Technology Programme. There are now more than 600 collaborative R&D projects as well as 22 knowledge transfer networks which act as a conduit for businesses to engage with government and other organisations.
This funding has had some exciting results, like the development of a micro-generator that can power implanted pacemakers using the movement of the human body. It’s exactly the sort of research we’re looking for, where we work with industry to develop marketable products for the future.
Creative industries are an important contributor to innovation. Design often holds the key to turning R&D into commercial products, taking them from the lab to the shop shelf. There is a clear need to bring about a structured engagement of the design community with science and technology networks. That’s why the materials sector has launched the Materials and Design Exchange which involves the Design Council, Engineering Employers Federation and other key partners.
The government is also helping businesses boost the power of design through the new Designing Demand programme. Developed by the Design Council and already being delivered via three Regional Development Agencies, it advises businesses, teaming them with design managers to see what design can do for them.
In addition, the Higher Education Innovation Fund has been set up to provide incentives for universities to transfer knowledge to the economy. In the last two years, 25 university spinouts, with a total value of almost £1.3bn, were floated on the stock market.
Plastic Logic, from Cambridge University, is a major UK success story: it makes portable, readable and power-efficient flexible displays and will build the world’s first factory to make plastic electronics on a commercial scale.
We shouldn’t have too narrow a view of innovation. It’s not about high-tech industries and cutting-edge technology, but about the successful exploitation of new ideas, wherever they come from and wherever they impact. In a fast-changing global economy, businesses that innovate and create will succeed.
The author is minister of state for science and innovation.
Article first published in Design Council Magazine, Issue 2, Summer 2007