The 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes and 21st Century choreographer Twyla Tharp both grappled with rapid change.

The 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes and 21st Century choreographer Twyla Tharp both grappled with rapid change.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

From Thomas Hobbes to Twyla Tharp:

On Rapid Change and Innovative Thinking

The following article is an excerpt from “The Pig, Not the Lipstick,” a Boma Open Access Book by Ralph Talmont about how businesses can build a sustainable culture of innovation.

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“The extraordinary speed and the unsettling complexity / ambiguity of the online business environment, profoundly affects not only leadership requirements but also other key managerial processes, including communication, decision making, and vision.”

That’s a quote from an article in The Leadership Quarterly written by management scholars Michael Brown and Dennis Gioia. They wrote it in 2002.

Nearly two decades later those processes have become even more complex and certainly more rapid. We are building our future reality at high speed. In 1965, John Diebold — pioneer of information technology and inventor of the word “automation”— told the New York Times: “Today’s machines, even more than the devices of the Industrial Revolution, are creating a whole new environment for mankind and a whole new way of life.” What would he say today?

Incidentally, the word “automaton,” denoting self-powered devices or systems – “engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch” – was coined by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes some 350 years earlier.

People have been considering these things for a long time. It is just the speed of change that has been increasing. Successful new companies scale twice as fast as they did at the beginning of this century and the rate is increasing. They are formed, test and try out a number of approaches, then explode onto the market place, leaving incumbents wondering what happened. To compete against these processes, seeding and sustaining a culture of innovation throughout your own company is really the single appropriate course of action.

Even in “traditional” sectors disruption is quickly becoming the norm, if not through digital transformation of the companies themselves then through upending of the various components of their supply chain, or substantial change in the dynamics of their markets, with the business model shifting to accommodate new customer demands. No industry is immune.

In medicine, for example, people will no doubt continue to take pills but within a few years their prescriptions will be written by doctors working with advanced AI assistants and the pills will be made individually – for the patient, not the disease.

That process is already happening with IBM’s Watson aiding in diagnosis and treatment of complex cancer cases. What we will see is broad adoption of the model, and acceptance by the “doctor-going public” of entirely new solutions. Antibiotic spiders’ silk that heals wounds? Already done. AI identifying complex, rare diseases from photos and voice recordings, years before any diagnosis being possible by human doctors? Tick that one, too. And it is not just the sharp end of the medical implement that benefits from technology. Imagine what properly applied learning machines could do to healthcare backlogs and ballooning costs by improving administrative tasks such as more efficient allocation of resources – hospital beds, nursing staff and so on.

An unfortunate, easily made, mistake I have witnessed many times is to treat innovation as a sort of add-on feature. This rarely works because a company, even at its etymological level, is a group of people and in order for innovation thinking to take root, introduction and fostering of it need to follow human behavior patterns to the deepest levels. Choreographer Twyla Tharp, in her rather brilliant book “The Collaborative Habit,” talking about how she works with dance companies as teams of individuals, describes this very point beautifully:

“Outside of the dance world, this individual attention is not understood – or noticed. You see a company of dancers performing in sync. What you don’t see is that the choreographer doesn’t train a company, but rather twenty-five individuals. Out of many collaborations comes one.”

Innovation thinking enables individuals and companies to harness all this change as a positive force. This cannot be deployed, however; it needs to be cultivated – and for this to happen, it needs to be fully embraced by the top brass. An innovation program which organically grows out of the structure of the organization is going to work far better than innovation that is an artificial patch slapped on from the outside. The leaders need to decide on a course that rests fully on the principles of innovation thinking, including general approval for the uncertain processes of trial and error.

Once that happens, you will need that network of dynamic, creative people who will serve as Ambassadors of Change, working to build such an innovation program right into the bones of the company, not least to speed up internal processes.

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