Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Creative Inconvenience

In a recent episode of Showtime’s “Homeland” the teenage son of a potential presidential candidate is driving with his girlfriend, and in trying to impress her attempts to lose their secret service escort. This in turn leads the couple into a fatal hit and run with a pedestrian. The story plays out where the guilt ridden couple ultimately confess the accident to their parents, at which point a moral dilemma ensues.

Do the presidential parents act on what is morally right and report the incident, thus risking the presidential bid, or do they use their power to suppress any investigation? In this fictitious scenario the issue’s morality lost to its ability to restrict personal gain, and as such the event went unreported.

This dramatized example of morality of convenience, where ideals are sacrificed for gain, has roots in reality and takes on different shapes, some that lay outside of black & white moral purity.

For instance we love the entrepreneur - the creative rebel who by the very act of their non-conformity changes social behavior patterns and the standard approach to business. However the inconvenient truth is that most business ventures fail. So even as we admire innovative success and celebrate the ideals behind the success, we also tend to ignore the multitude of failures that surround those successes and gloss over the price of achieving them.

Creative innovation requires taking risks, accepting failure, rejecting convention and exploring unproven methods. Despite the fact that Corporate America has created a cottage industry on promoting the ideas of innovation and creativity, the fact is most are structured to stifle innovation. Like Homeland’s hit and run casualty who fell victim to the morality of convenience, so is corporate innovation the victim of creative inconvenience.

The 4 Dynamics Of Stifled Innovation

  1. Cultural Homogeneity:
Organizations typically recruit employees that best fit into their existing culture. This creates a self perpetuating cycle where any deviation from that culture tends to be met with dissatisfaction and thus gets weeded out.

Social experiments have additionally shown that when faced with a majority point of view, individuals tend to adhere to that viewpoint, even if it goes against a believed truth. This behavioral conformity is particularly prevalent where departures from the social norm negatively impact status - such as one’s ability to get promoted.  

The result - homogenized thought with a singular voice in support of the existing order.

  1. Innovation Inefficiency
In The Medici Effect Frans Johansson writes that in any given field 10% of the creators are responsible for 50% of the contributions - Picasso created 20,000 pieces of art, Thomas Edison filed a record 1,039 patents  and Richard Branson started 250 companies.

The point is that successful innovation is a numbers game of high output for minimal success with high reward. Unfortunately most companies are structured to minimize costs through operational efficiencies and to deliver consistent returns, not to absorb the loss of excess capacity in search of a home run.

  1. Decision Incentives
Directly resulting from the above points, in most corporations it is more dangerous to make a bold, potentially high return decision and fail than it is to make a consensus decision and fail. As a result people tend to model their decisions to satisfy those who will be evaluating them instead of making choices based on their potential to deliver.

  1. Risk Aversion Biology
Since the hunter gatherer days when unnecessary risk could be fatal, humans are biologically wired to minimize risk. Social experiments have again proven this whereby giving people a choice between a larger, less certain reward and a smaller more certain one people will generally choose the more certain, lower payout. Innovation requires risk and risk taking is not in our DNA.

Achieving innovation and creativity in the corporate sense are clearly not impossible since they happen often enough. However the next time you attempt to push creative boundaries realize that despite what people say they may not be ready to pay the price for innovation, and your ability to bridge that price gap may ultimately determine the fate of your idea.


  1. The best definition of innovation I've ever heard came from Doug Hall of Eureka Ranch (

    Someone asked him how you recognize a true innovation. He said something along the lines of "The way to spot a true innovation is that it causes operational chaos." In other words, if the company already basically knows how to manufacture and market a product, then it is a tweak and not a true innovation.

  2. Nice add - thank you. Definitely speaks to the point I was trying to make about true innovation being inconvenient because it disrupts norms. Social experiments have shown that people typically will fiercely defend the comfort created by established systems and thus will resist true innovation unless it is central part of the culture.

  3. thanks for share.