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At the geopolitical level, there is evidence to support the idea that democratically governed countries produce higher levels of innovation than autocracies. But is this true when we talk about industries, companies serving those industries or departments within those companies? I am not so sure.

You can’t help but stumble upon organizations of all sizes and stripes boasting about the flatness of their corporate hierarchy. « We don’t have departments, we have teams. We encourage debate and discussion at all levels,« etc.

But based on observations from my ‘fly-on-the-wall’ perspective, dealing with companies of all sizes and in all industries, the reality is different. Of course, occasional outliers do exist. But for the most part, any notion of working toward a point of majority consensus on a contentious business decision is for the birds.

Invariably the Hippopotamus has the casting vote, which somehow negates the value of having a meeting on the issue in the first place.

The tricky part of innovation is that by definition the result is something that has never been seen before. The goal is to solve a problem, or a series of problems, in a way that does not currently exist. As an inevitable consequence, the process will involve considering thoughts and ideas that are not suitable for everyone in the room.

But that’s the whole point. If the answer was obvious, or could be deduced from conventional rational thought, we would have found it by now. The fact that we haven’t done so means that we need to change the thought processes that brought us here.

Why most companies don’t innovate

I’m sure you’ve been to a thousand meetings like this. It starts out slowly, with someone describing the current problem and what they saw as an answer. They will go through the pros and cons of each option, concluding that none of the choices are a perfect fit. The floor is then open to the participants in the meeting who all react in the same way: silence.

Silence, that is, until the oldest person in the room is standing.

What happens next? Everyone in the room jumps on everyone to give their two cents. But the comments are just variations of what others have said. Worse yet, they are only offered to inflate the ego of the top executive. Either way, it means disaster.

So what’s wrong?

Everything went south as soon as the senior officer opened his mouth. In this microsecond, for no other reason than their high corporate status, the meeting descended into an exercise in compliance and group thinking. Any idea of ​​diversity of thought vanished as quickly as the plate of cookies in the center of the table. Anyone who had even the smallest semblance of an original thought buried that idea deep in their subconscious. The game is already over and we haven’t even finished taking the pieces out of the box.

The outcome of the meeting is a broad consensus for the sake of vanity, politics, submission, conflict avoidance, or a combination of all of the above. For many reasons, people may choose to follow the herd rather than engage in constructive and healthy debate.

But a consensus of opinion is not what is needed. When everyone agrees, no one questions. We cannot solve tomorrow’s problems using today’s thinking.

Innovative ideas come from unconventional thinking

Any thought suitably outside the left field runs the risk of being ignored or ridiculed. If the idea is big and bold enough, some people will push it back.

But instead of shutting down those ideas, we need to learn to encourage them – no matter where they come from. It is only through reflection and experimentation that we can challenge our inherent assumptions and biases, envision alternatives, and ultimately design better and more innovative solutions.

Today, many businesses are born from ideas that at the time seemed ridiculous. Imagine Howard Schultz telling you he wanted to sell you a cup of coffee for 10 times what it costs to make coffee at home. You would have thought the guy was missing two beans from an espresso. Today, Starbucks is worth around $ 140 billion.

Or consider Richard and Maurice MacDonald, the founders of a certain fast food franchise you may be familiar with. To reduce customer wait times, they reduced the menu from 25 items to 9 and implemented an innovative process (for now) at the kitchen assembly line. They were able to significantly reduce operating costs and customers were happier to get their meals faster (even at the expense of reduced choice).

Such innovations do not come from the fact that everyone aligns with the group’s worldview, obtained from a meeting where no one wants to speak.

Majorities don’t just rule: they influence

Most managers organize meetings for the sake of expediency, not result. In order to avoid wasting time dealing with strange thoughts or dissenting opinions, they view meetings as a way to quickly reach a particular decision. Now fill the room with sycophants and you’ll reach group consensus faster than you can say « share options ».

As marketers, we know the dangers of Confirmation bias. People are predisposed to imitate the behavior of others, rather than using their own judgment. It’s part of evolutionary psychology, rooted in our innate desire to “fit” it while maintaining the status quo.

Again, there are plenty of business examples to back this up. At its peak Yahoo refused to buy Google (twice!). Another example is that the Kodak management team is actively sitting on the employee’s work. Steve sasson, when he created the world’s first digital camera. Their reasoning was that the company made very good profits from the sale of films. They weren’t about to kill this source of income, thank you anyway. I’m not saying that by embracing digital image capture back then, Kodak would be on a much more solid footing than the company has today. But I think it would have made it much more likely.

Real and lasting innovation comes from strong and singularly focused ideas. These ideas are often initially unpopular or divisive. Business leaders need to be more open in recognizing deep opposition and actively developing strategies to overcome it. Even today, many will not even consider the validity of an opposing opinion within their organization.

Innovation requires strong leadership

Ignoring the contrary opinion may have contributed to business errors such as Amazon Fire Phone, or Apple’s doomed social media network Ping.

Almost as bad as dismissing naysayers (or not speaking yourself as an naysayer) is looking for a concession to please the group. Innovation requires strong leadership to maintain focus and prevent ideas from being diluted in order to appease.

Yes, it is important to recognize dissent, understand its root, and consider its opposing position. But in the end, some innovations cannot be approved by consensus. Imagine if the first iPhone was designed by a committee or if the Starbucks business model was put to a vote. The chances of success for either would have been slim at best.

Implementing a game-changing idea is never easy. If it was, we would all do it. Because of their very inability to be resolved and sufficiently interpreted by rationalized thinking, such ideas are seen as risky and counterintuitive. They need defenders. Champions within the company whose role is to inspire, defend, dispel, exert pressure and reinforce beliefs.

This is why leadership stimulates innovation, while consensus does not.



DotCom Magazine Impact Company of the Year 2021 winner


About the Author

Avatar for Gee Ranasinha

Gee Ranasinha

Gee Ranasinha is CEO and Founder of KEXINO. He’s been a marketer since the days of 56K modems, lecturing marketing and behavioral economics at a European business school, and was rated as one of the top 100 global business influencers by sage.com ( those great people who create financial software).

Originally from London, Gee now lives in his own world in Strasbourg, France, tolerated by his wife and young son.

Learn more about Gee at kexino.com/gee-ranasinha. Follow him on Twitter at KEXINO, on Facebook at facebook.com/ranasinha, or on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/ranasinha.

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