Personal Finance

Counter intuitive innovation practices



  • Innovative companies recognize that output can come from anywhere.
  • While teamwork is a wonderful thing in practice, a team is not always the best place to find perceptive problem solving and creativity.
  • Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has suggested that some of the most creative people are introverts.

“To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence,” observed Mark Twain.

Can success in business be designed and predicted like clockwork, or can it only be explained after the fact? This is a long-standing question in management theory and practice. Perhaps the clue is that despite uncertainty and fierce competition, some organisations do a few things remarkably well, often following some unconventional counterintuitive management practices.

In other words, they are in the habit of getting it right, not necessarily following the obvious, flow of gravity, typically rocky watercourse.

“Do different things, and do things differently” are words to think about.

Focus on effectiveness, and less on efficiency

Efficiency and effectiveness are two very different things. Efficiency is simply a measure of output over input. It’s possible to be quite efficient, but with zero effectiveness, by focussing on the wrong task, the wrong job to be done. Nothing kills productivity like focusing on the wrong things.

World-class companies like Toyota, Honda, Sony, Hyundai and Samsung allow for “sub-optimal resource utilization” by design. They recognize that just focusing on ‘output by input’ reduces people to machines, ignoring the outside possibility of discovery, chance and just plain serendipity.

Many companies measure productivity on a daily basis, for instance, in professional services firms lawyers and accountants are measured on how billable they are, in other words, how much money are they making for the firm. Problem is that in a knowledge economy, output can be delinked from input in surprising ways.

All this is a balancing act, but there is a distinction between timesheet measured ‘busyness’, and longer-term more creative innovative performance.

Innovative companies recognize that output can come from anywhere. They recognize that sometimes you cannot predict that a series of actions will lead to a successful outcome. They allow for ‘sub-optimal utilization of staff. By design, they allow staff to take up pet hobby projects.

Prime examples of this are 3M who would allow for staff to take up to 15 percent time off to pursue possibly interesting initiatives. Or, at Google, they allow up to 20% of staff time to chase after, what might seem like crazy projects, that have resulted in products like Google Maps. {And, loads of failures, consigned to the corporate dustbin of history.]

“The most valuable result of 20 percent time isn’t the products and features that get created, it’s the things that people learn when they try something new,” says Google’s Eric Schmidt. In today’s uncertain, rapidly moving economy it’s useful to recognize that some things are non-countable, even nebulous, so it makes sense that management practices should reflect this.

Yes, Google is an unusual case, an outlier, a wealthy leading-edge company, with a solid balance sheet that can afford to experiment. But part of the reason for their success is their ability to recreate free-wheeling innovative products and practices, reminiscent of the Stanford University campus that the founders attended.

Despite the fact that Kenya’s economy has been severely shaken, in part thanks to the Corona pandemic: Is it worth considering how these examples learned can be applied? To start, in frequent management and staff ‘town hall meetings’ it makes sense to listen to the bright ideas suggested, and possibly consider supporting them in a low risk, low-cost way.

Are teams for everyone?

According to the World Economic Forum in the future [and even today], there are 10 top workplace skills required, the top 3 are complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity, [followed by ‘people management and coordination of others’]. Interestingly, emotional intelligence comes in ranked sixth.

Teams in one of those misused words. Even if a group of staff is backbiting and just plain dysfunctional, to tart things up, the CEO will often refer to them as a team.

While teamwork is a wonderful thing in practice, a team is not always the best place to find perceptive problem solving and creativity, and certainly not critical thinking. The risk of teams is that they can be prone to groupthink, and ‘regression towards the mean. Yes, teams are good for ‘doing stuff,' but usually not so good at ‘thinking stuff’.

What is the ideal setting for original thinking? What is the incubation unit for creativity and complex problem-solving? Research suggests that solitude, just sitting there alone thinking, allows for a synthesis of concepts. In other words, joining the dots, but it is more than that.

It’s an ability to see the connections between things one thought were unconnected. The Zen-like meditative habits of Steve Jobs are a classic example of success in this domain. Closer to home, bet there is an introverted wise Wanjiku who takes a similar approach.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has suggested that some of the most creative people are introverts. The catch is that introverts may not do well in a boisterous, loud ‘listen to me’ workplace setting. Introverts don’t open up easily, don’t seem to get along with everyone, and don’t jive with the notion of a team, and easily become sidelined. Yet, they are a wellspring of pure water refreshing innovative thinking.

“I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by a committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone” writes Susan Cain, in her book: ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts’.

What do we learn from this? Pay attention to workplace design, and allow for time for more meditative work. Recognize that in encouraging productivity, effectiveness and a touch of innovation there may not be a ‘one size fits all approach. Recognize diversity, everyone’s different in some way.

It’s worth making the investment in having staff understand themselves. Tools for doing this are the Myers-Briggs personality test and Belbin team role analysis. Here there is no way to look bad, everyone has their strengths, which need to be understood and catered for.

No, you won’t always get it right. There will be successes and failures. One has to risk short-term ignorance, melded with a longer-term sense of confidence. “As the company grows, the size of the mistakes has to grow as well, and if it doesn't, you're not going to be inventing at a scale that can actually move the needle” in how Amazon’s Jeff Bezos sees it.