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Doing the Creative Work the Company Can’t: Part 1 - The Way of the Café

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“Every revolutionary ends up either by becoming an oppressor or a heretic.” Albert Camus

Take a close look at your favorite multinational corporation or research university or government institute. You will find lots of diversity, intelligence and generative energy – in the coffee shop right across the street. While focusing on Byzantine stage-gate development processes, micromanaging the number of key indicators that can dance on the head of your new product portfolio or tormenting designers with engineering methods employed in the Soviet Union in the 1950’s, your most creative people walk out of your door every day unnoticed, uninspired and untapped. What is it about the very organizations that we create to accelerate innovation that eventually drives it out? The answer is function of the organization itself.

My late colleague C. K. Prahalad coined the term “dominant logic” to describe the mental maps a company creates through successful experiences and how these constructs and beliefs limit their ability to innovate. The primary aim any mature organization is survival first and growth second. The duck-and-cover strategies of many once stalwart firms during the Great Recession make this point obvious. Implicit in most management tools and methods is the goal of maintaining the organization’s equilibrium. The dominant logic that underlies these management practices is the elimination of variation in favor of quality, efficiency and predictable earnings. This focuses leaders on alignment. However, innovation brings diversity and deviation. You can’t be unique by doing the same things as everyone else. The problem is that the idiosyncrasies of operating against standards inevitability bring failure. Think about how cars with the coolest new components unavoidably have first time quality problems or how the latest miracle drug brings unforeseen risks. Certainty is the true cost of novelty.

A case in point is Pixar. In the mid 1990’s, while the motion picture industry was developing ever more sophisticated methods of conjoint marketing analysis and complex licensing schemes, tiny Pixar was developing and experimenting with new forms of computer animation technologies. Start-ups can’t compete on scope or scale because they lack resources so innovation is essentially their only viable pathway to growth. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. What made Pixar so remarkable was not so much the depth of talent but the range. Key innovators came from Disney, Boeing, DARPA, tech startups, art houses and wide range of universities. Surely the original Pixar cast learned its trade at these venerable and stalwart organizations. So why wasn’t Pixar or something like it started inside any of them? Because the very people who operate with power within the system, no matter their best intentions or inflated rhetoric, are highly unlikely to disrupt it with something radically new. Pixar sugar daddy Steve Jobs understood from experience that upstart companies can do the kind of groundbreaking work that isn’t possible in an incumbent firm protecting its rent.

The coffee shop revolutionary is an old idea. In his book The Invention of Air, Steven Johnson points out that the polymaths of the American Enlightenment such Joseph Priestley, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson routinely did their most innovative work in the coffee and ale houses of their day. After all, revolutions require revolutionaries. There is little sedition in the board room. You talk treason with the other frustrated activists over a pint or a grande mochaccino.

The Point: Organizations are designed to maintain their equilibrium and put the kibosh on the radical variation breakthrough innovation brings.

What to Do: Understand that there are things that your organization can’t do for its people such as get them to be creative on demand or take purposeful action on their most compelling ideas. That has to be something they do for themselves. This means no more “for the good of the team” speeches in the locker room. Instead, encourage people to go across the street and imbibe in the last legal narcotic when the spirit moves them. Try buying some coffee gift cards in bulk. Better yet, buy some “get out of jail” Monopoly cards for when these folks need to be sprung from some bureaucratic incarceration because of their intoxicating ingenuity.

Become a regular. Drink the brew. Be part of the conversation. Learn which folks are just talk and which ones can really make things happen. Leave your better judgment at the office. Say “yes” to wiggy-cool projects and “no” to incremental fine tuners. Don’t spend too much money or time. Coffee shop revolutionaries try a wide variety of things to quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. They chat it up. They make sense of it all. They make adjustments.

With a little luck your clever klatch will begin to develop some new capabilities and a sense of destiny. Now you have a line of sight to the best people and ideas. You get to be an innovation emissary to the organization because you can translate Caffeinese into corporate speak.

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