Dream big. Limitations can come later

If you want to design a car that runs at 600 km/h, the last person you should hire is an engineer. Why? Because they will tell you it’s impossible. But you already know it is impossible – that is why you want to innovate in the first place!

“An expert is someone who can tell you exactly how it can’t be done,” says Peter Diamandis, the founder of the x prize foundation, an educational non-profit organisation that wants to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. And he has a point.

I have nothing against experts and engineers you understand; they are extremely handy at the end of the innovation process, the building stage. But to start with you need dreamers: the creatives, the artists – the fantasists.

The bigger the dream, the more chance you have to succeed. Along the way, several critics are going to cut that dream down to size, so the bigger it is at the start, the better. Some the major breakthroughs in human civilisation have come from dreamers. Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison both credit their discoveries of relativity and electricity respectively to their dreams. Dr Frederick Banting famously woke up at 2 am on the morning of 31 October, 1920 with the idea that led to the discovery of insulin and won himself a Nobel Prize. Stravinsky, Wagner, Beethoven, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney all claimed to have heard their music first in their dreams.

By contrast, history is cluttered with expert opinions that have been proven catastrophically off the mark. From the president of the Royal Society of London pronouncing in 1895 that: “heavier than air flying machines are impossible”, to the unfortunate Ken Olsen, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Foundation (who just happened to be an engineer) stating confidently in 1977 that “there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home”.

The lesson here for organisations desperate to create innovation cultures to keep them competitive in tough economic times, is to limit the role of the experts and the engineers upfront and fan the flame of creatives. And it starts at the top. It is critical that innovation leaders have big dreams (or in organisation speak – a vision)and that they are able to communicate these clearly to their teams, those (yes, including the engineers) who will be responsible for actualising this vision.

Writing in Harvard Business Review recently leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman identified the ability to paint a clear picture of the destination and the ability to set stretch goals for their team as two core characteristics for innovation leaders.

The reason for this is not just because leaders need to be motivational (although of course that helps in creating infectious action), but more practically because a clear vision helps you to decide which ideas to pursue and which to shelve. When Alice in Wonderland asks the Cheshire cat which way she ought to go, the cat asks Alice in turn where she wants to get to. When Alice replies that she doesn’t much care, the cat responds sagaciously, then it doesn’t matter which way you go.

In the absence of a vision, any decision is the right one. This may be fine if you’re Alice in Wonderland, but it could be problematic when there is more at stake.

Joe Nocera writes in the New York Times that Steve Jobs “never stopped relying on his singular instincts in making decisions about how Apple products should look and how they should work” and that, despite his famously nasty streak, his “instincts have been so unerringly good — and his charisma so powerful — that Apple employees were willing to follow him wherever he led”.

Much lip service is paid to innovation in organisations, yet few manage to achieve the magic formula, becoming innovation legends like Apple. The secret, I believe, lies, in part, in dreaming big – like Jobs – and granting your people a licence to dream too.

In Africa we are surrounded by seemingly impossible tasks. Daunting social and environmental challenges, which only a dreamer might be crazy enough to think we can solve.

The continent needs leaders who can dream these dreams and who can keep the space of possibility open and allow others to dream alongside them. As Walt Disney – one of the most famous dreamers of all time once said: “if you can dream it, you can do it!”

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