Familiarity breeds innovation

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but familiarity breeds innovation (See my recent post for the difference).  I was fortunate to have that thought quoted in a recent Fast Company interview about inspiring innovation with radical trust, but I think it deserves even more detailed attention.

I’m not sure why this concept is so hard to grasp for business people. So I looked it up and found that the Latin root of familiarity is intimacy.  Ah ha!  After a quick search on that term, it’s clear that most people associate intimacy with sex.  Which made me think of the famous Annie Leibovitz photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  She’s a living legend for pushing our comfort zones with her art.

John & Yoko Rolling Stone cover by Annie Leibovitz

So I think we should get back to the real definition of intimacy and get more comfortable with how it is so essential to innovation.  For the record:

Familiarity: close acquaintance or knowledge (Latin: familiāritās  intimacy.)

Here’s what I mean by familiarity:

1. Love your customer. Think about when you have a crush on someone. You can’t stop thinking about her and you want to know EVERYTHING about her. To innovate in business, you must obsess over your customer’s behavior and pay close attention to what they do (and don’t do) in their lives surrounding your product or service. If you don’t create intimacy with them, you end up playing “whack a mole” with your new ideas, missing most of the time because you are just guessing.

2. Engage in healthy debate: I like the word debate because it implies that you know both (all) sides of an issue and are fluent with them. Fluent enough to play with them versus trying to win over or kill the other ideas. This level of familiarity is critical to “higher order” breakthroughs because playful interaction with multiple perspectives leads to unexpected connections and the blending of ideas into new concepts.

3. Work with you best friends. Years ago the Gallup Organization found significance in the statement, “I have a best friend at work” in their research on employee engagement. Innovation powerhouse David Kelley is famous for starting IDEO as a place where he could work with his friends.  In the Fast Company article, Greg Ferenstein underscores this point by saying, “You don’t BS friends. And they don’t blow smoke and rainbows when you share with them your crazy ideas.”  Friendship is the embodiment of trust, and trust is foundational for innovation (which is loaded with risk).

For many people in the working world, the ideas of intimacy, playfulness and friendship are against their very conception of work.  But there is more than sufficient evidence linking these types of familiarity with high performance and creative production so things are starting to shift.

The potential for creative greatness in any person is there… but us humans are social beings and fulfilling our potential requires healthy, holistic, intimate relationships.

 

Leadership is a group outcome

I’m not a big fan of competency models.  They can be interesting as a measuring stick for basic performance, but they tend towards generic “best” practices and don’t seem to be very useful to the people I’ve worked around.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a successful person dissect his/her performance along the lines of an existing model.  abe_lincoln

It’s troubling to me that “fixing” yourself up according to an ideal set of competencies is a path towards success.   But the really big flaw in this approach is the focus on individual competence.

Bob Sutton echoes this thought in his recent post of Flawed, Suspect, and Incomplete Assumptions about Managing People .  I trust his instincts and value his persistence in defeating these types of assumptions.  I think they are a big problem for businesses today.

I’ve been watching people perform in a wide variety of settings for quite some time and I’ve come to believe that leadership development is a waste of time.  And I’ve wasted lots of time on it, trust me!  Instead, I’ve shifted to relationship development.  Helping people function better together has way more impact than teaching people insights about themselves that they can generalize to better behavior in the future.

Also, consider the idea that leadership is not a competency at all.  It’s really an outcome.  When I behave successfully with others to solve something, start something, finish something, we’ve accomplished leadership.

Most great leaders are actually collaborators in great actions that change the course of events and create big impact.  Consider Abraham Lincoln… (read Team of Rivals) how much time do you suppose he invested in leadership development versus improving his connections with others?   Next time you consider spending training dollars or valuable time on leadership training, spend that money, time, and energy on improving the performance of your relationships with others instead.

Some tips for better (team) interactions:

1. Spend more time together.

2. Improve your dialog, building on ideas instead of “winning” with the best one.

3. Compare the number of questions versus statements you make as a group.

4. Connect with advisers outside of your team.  Invite them in to your team to give their perspective.

5. Ask someone on your team to give you advice on your own participation.

Work successfully with others and leadership will happen!