Power is Originality’s Best Friend
Two groups of Japanese monkeys were introduced to a new taste. In the first group, caramels were given to monkeys low on the status ladder and after 18 months half of the colony had acquired a liking for the new taste. In the second group, the leader was given the new food – wheat – and within just four hours the whole colony was eating it.
Humans also rely on authority for direction and tend to ignore the advice of unknowns. This is particularly true when unknowns introduce new ideas. People find it easier to accept a new idea from a leader than from an outsider.Support of powerful people is vital to promoting your idea and covering your back.
An unknown Sony engineer low on the status ladder secretly designed a groundbreaking computer audio chip for their competitors new games console.
When executives found out, they demanded his head. The engineer was rescued by the leader of the company who made it clear that challenges to orthodoxy were welcome. He allowed the chip to be completed, and supported the development of Sony’s own console. Ultimately, Sony launched the PlayStation selling more than 100 million units. It would not have happened without a powerful supporter backing up an original thinker.
An unknown researcher, working for a modestly sized company in Minnesota visited a local garage to test out some batches of waterproof sandpaper - his company’s latest product. Overhearing workers cursing he learned that the heavy adhesive tape and butchers paper used to create two-tone effects often damaged the new paint. He headed back to the lab to try to create the world’s first specialist masking tape but failed so often that the leader of the company ordered him to drop the project. Yet when the same leader discovered Drew in the lab still secretly working against orders he said nothing to stop him. Encouraged by this tolerant response, but without formal funding, Drew used hundreds of $99 purchase orders to develop the first 3M tape. It also provided the basis of the multi-billion dollar innovation culture from which tens of thousands of products, including sellotape and post-its, have flowed.
Two hundred years ago, a newly qualified doctor used his connections with men of power to change policy and save lives. He convinced the British Navy to give its sailors lemon juice as a cure for scurvy. The cure had been around for centuries but was ignored because the men who had discovered it were unknowns.
Without a cure, scurvy caused more deaths at sea than storms, shipwrecks, combat and all other diseases combined. He did not invent the cure but he did gain friends in high places. He persuaded the Admiralty that preventive medicine was the answer to the scourge of scurvy. With the unquestioned support of the Admiral, he was obeyed.
In each example, the hierarchy ignores the innovations of unknown people. The value of their ideas are dismissed because they lack influence and social status. The ideas are saved when the leader lends credibility to their innovations.
The lesson for would-be innovators is clear - every powerful person needs ideas. Most ideas need powerful people to facilitate, legitimise, popularise, and even legislate for their adoption. Ideas will fail with powerful support but few ideas will succeed without it. Originality needs power to overcome the natural, defensive inertia of the status quo.
The lesson for leaders is also clear – innovators need someone to support them. Most innovators are smart, driven people who find it hard to follow rules. This combination needs nurturing - someone to speak for them when needed, someone to coach them on what to say and how to say it, someone to bend the rules, and someone to guide them politically.
Brown, S, 2004, Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail, Thomas Dunne Books
Fahey, R, 2007, Farewell, Father, Eurogamer.net
Use your Facebook login and see what your friends are reading and sharing.
Now bringing you back...
Please enter your email address below to reset your password. We will send you an email with instructions on how to continue.