Why having everyone think alike kills innovation…

The New York Time published an article in December, 2007 entitled Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike. The article points out something that should, perhaps, be obvious but isn’t.

Who, how and why you hire – and how you evaluate performance – directly impacts your ability to innovate. Why? Because:

Andrew S. Grove, the co-founder of Intel, put it well in 2005 when he told an interviewer from Fortune, “When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” In other words, it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself.

When you hire for “fit” – which is a polite way of saying that everyone needs to fit in, think alike, exhibit the same traits, come from the same world view, etc. you ensure that everyone agrees with you… and by definition cripple your ability to adapt, change and innovate.

More after the jump…

The MBA schools have focused inordinately on relationships in the course of business – and the need to create strong and positive relationships as a means to enhance productivity. While there is little doubt that creating and nurturing effective working relationships is important… creating an environment where performance is measured based on one’s ability to get along with and/or be liked by coworkers is a miss-step. More importantly, hiring “relationship first” ensures you’ll only hire those who either think what you do, or do not challenge the common thinking in an effort to fit in.

What we end up teaching people is that they shouldn’t have to work too hard to communicate and develop functional working relationships with people whom they do not agree – and potentially do not like. And that point of view is the death of innovation.

To innovate, Mr. Heath says, you have to bring together people with a variety of skills. If those people can’t communicate clearly with one another, innovation gets bogged down in the abstract language of specialization and expertise. “It’s kind of like the ugly American tourist trying to get across an idea in another country by speaking English slowly and more loudly,” he says. “You’ve got to find the common connections.”

In her 2006 book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in outsiders whom she calls zero-gravity thinkers to keep creativity and innovation on track.

When experts have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and, as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems.”

When we over focus on relationships – and fail to ensure that we have diverse thinking – we end up with group think… the ultimate enemy of innovation. Put any 10 people who think exactly the same thing in a room with one person who simply questions the thinking and you’ll find out exactly how good a job you’ve done.

She cites as an example the work of a colleague at Ralston Purina who moved to Eveready in the mid-1980s when Ralston bought that company. At the time, Eveready had become a household name because of its sales since the 1950s of inexpensive red plastic and metal flashlights. But by the mid-1980s, the flashlight business, which had been aimed solely at men shopping at hardware stores, was foundering.

While Ms. Rabe’s colleague had no experience with flashlights, she did have plenty of experience in consumer packaging and marketing from her years at Ralston Purina. She proceeded to revamp the flashlight product line to include colors like pink, baby blue and light green — colors that would appeal to women — and began distributing them through grocery store chains.

“It was not incredibly popular as a decision amongst the old guard at Eveready,” Ms. Rabe says. But after the changes, she says, “the flashlight business took off and was wildly successful for many years after that.”

MS. RABE herself experienced similar problems while working as a transient “zero-gravity thinker” at Intel.

“I would ask my very, very basic questions,” she said, noting that it frustrated some of the people who didn’t know her. Once they got past that point, however, “it always turned out that we could come up with some terrific ideas,” she said.

As importantly – as an employee who is evaluated based on his or her ability to ensure that co-workers when asked will indicate they enjoy working with you and like you – how likely will you be to question the group think thereby frustrating those co-workers.

We need to build a culture where that kind of zero-gravity thinking is encouraged – and the importance of relationships is to ensure that people learn the skills, techniques and patience to develop effective working relationships with those whom we disagree, even dislike. After all – work is work, not a social club.

At the end of the day, I’ll take Cynthia Barton Rabe’s (author of Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine) advice:

“Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field,” she says. “Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.”

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