At last month’s Innovation Awards (where we totally won a trophy) it was clear that the everyday inventiveness that Kiwis take for granted as just part of being a “good bastard” is alive and well. There’s some seriously cool stuff going on in this little nation of rebels and tinkerers.
Building this kind of embedded “culture of innovation” is one of the most common goals for businesses these days. So considering how successfully NZ has done this as a nation, why aren’t we producing more world-leading, innovative businesses? Sure, we perform well in small pockets – Rocketlabs, Xero, Fonterra are impressing on a global stage. Anyone who has spent anytime anywhere in the world knows our banking system is comparatively speaking, a total dreamboat. But given how many truly clever, world-leading solutions we create here, only a relatively small number of those make the global impact they deserve.
The burning question is, why?
The dark side of the No.8
In 2012, Hayden and I spent a week building a village in Sri Lanka. We were sorted into teams of ten, a mix of kiwis and other internationals, assigned to construct one house. We were building to an exact specification under the guidance of experts but otherwise left to our own devices. We were essentially very inefficient labourers, a bunch of soft office workers mixing cement with spades on the ground, hauling loads of spilt coconut palms and digging holes in the sweaty, sweaty heat.
Observing so many cultures working together, I got to see the opportunistic “No 8 wire” thinking in living Technicolor. The kiwis were always looking for better ways of doing things.
While the other volunteers slowly got dizzy from the wood treatments, we worked out that we could mount the poles high across saw horses and paint lying on the ground, our paintbrush swishing away blind. The Americans busily moved one or two bricks in each hand, while we’d load up our tee-shirts, or lay them all up our arms, staggering away with six. Nearly every one of us had our drink bottle stashed in the massive ice cooler that supplied chilled water for our headbands. Of course it didn’t work out that well all the time. Our painting was sloppy and the brick scratches up our arms were infection dangers (although the icy water was totally worth the dirty looks from our fellow builders).
A week or so ago, I caught the tail of an interview with ex Saatchi&Saatchi Boss, Mike Hutcheson. He’d just finished a masters on NZ creativity, having come to the depressing conclusion that we’re, statistically, not world leaders in creating innovative businesses – despite that ‘no 8. Wire’ mentality that drives us to actively look for new, better ways of doing things. The issue, he’d identified, was that our innovativeness nearly always comes with a little too much independence.
You’re not the boss of me
What does too much independence look like? It’s the go-it-alone mentality our European forbears brought with them from the old world, if pop-psychology is to be believed. That spirit may have helped us break the shackles of an oppressive class system and it could be the same reason we have so many kiwi small businesses.
Essentially, no one tells us what to do. And as anyone running a business knows, that’s a dangerous attitude. Hutcheson reckons it’s the reason why so kiwi many companies stall at the medium-sized mark. They start with a great idea, and then spend all of their energy defending their independence. The same pigheaded confidence that gives us the gumption to go out on our own also means we often avoid collaboration, taking advice or seeking criticism. This is the dark side of our No. 8 wire culture.
So how do we strike a balance?
How should we go about structuring our companies and our teams in a way that both supports that ballsy innovative spirit while also getting everyone pulling in the same direction? This is something the Weirdly team are working through ourselves so we’ve got no decisive answers for you. But here are some thoughts based on what we’ve discovered so far:
Don’t employ innovative people, build innovative teams,
Innovation is about seeing new ways of doing things. That’s the key commercial benefit to a diverse team – more points of view, more ideas, more ways of doing things, more devil’s advocates. The trick is, your diverse team must also have values that align – that is they’ve got to care about and be working towards the same things. This gives them a firm foundation that means, even if there are working style or communication hurdles to cross, sharing the control of ideas and projects feels a bit safer for everyone.
Get a companywide mission
Having a clear mission – and a team who totally buys into it – will allow you to harness people’s do-things-better mentality. It means their changes will at least pull in the right overall direction and that inventiveness is more likely to have a laser focus. You can have the best innovation culture in the world, but unless that energy is pointed in a clear direction, you’ll have trouble marrying your innovation with snazzy business outcomes like profitability and happy shareholders.
In innovative companies, failure is totally an option because it’s an inevitable part of trying new things. Failure must be seen as early attempt at success – or no one will risk it. There are some key elements to this. First is to define what an acceptable failure is – sloppy planning or poor teamwork shouldn’t come into it. Then think of ways you can reward people who gave a project a good crack, and still failed. Lots of companies are starting to hand out rewards for daring, but unsuccessful, projects.
Feedback happens, get used to it.
Like we talked about last week, getting everyone involved in each other’s projects builds a culture of collaboration. It basically forces everyone to get used to the idea that other people’s opinions matter and gives people the opportunity to be open and honest with each other – about the positive AND the challenging stuff. Done consistently and respectfully, this kind of feedback culture builds trust between teams and creates opportunities for ideas to be refined, challenged and pushed forward.
In short, collaboration (and giving away a bit of control) isn’t the enemy of innovation – in fact, it’s the only thing that truly makes it work. The sooner we kiwis – and kiwi businesses – work that out, the sooner we’ll start taking our deserved place at the world innovator’s table.
If you want to try out one of NZ’s coolest little innovators, give Weirdly a go. We’re making recruitment and hiring more fun and streamlined for you AND your candidates.