Outside the Box, or Not?

Outside the Box, or Not?While browsing the e-zines on Sunday, I noticed a provocative headline in Salon, TED talks are lying to you.

What really peaked my interest was who wrote it, Thomas Frank. He is a very witty, insightful writer, and if you want a good laugh and cry read What’s The Matter With Kansas. The article first published in Harper’s magazine is about innovation literature. As this genre is now popular, Frank gets sent boat loads of books to review for columns and his website. The book he focuses on is Jonah Lehrer’s best seller, Imagine: How Creativity Works, which Frank decides to read while taking a hot bath. Part way through his reading he had an Archimedes-like eureka moment, albeit without him running naked into the street,

These realizations took only a millisecond. What our correspondent also understood, sitting there in his basement bathtub, was that the literature of creativity was a genre of surpassing banality. Every book he read seemed to boast the same shopworn anecdotes and the same canonical heroes,” then concluded, “What our correspondent realized, in that flash of bathtub-generated insight, was that this literature isn’t about creativity in the first place.”

So what does Frank think it’s about, “what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus.” This professional consensus is decided by what Malcolm Gladwell calls “The Law of The Few” in his best selling book “The Tipping Point.”  Key people with charisma, connection and social skills and influence that can make something happen, characterized by Gladwell as connectors, mavens and salesmen.

This is something to really spend time reflecting on as an entrepreneur or innovator.  Those TED talks by billionaires and the oft repeated stories about how 3M invented the post-it note or how a melted chocolate bar in the pocket of a scientist led to the development of the microwave oven only happened because the connectors, mavens and salesmen made them happen.  It is not the technology or idea that is key, there are hundreds of thousands of worthwhile patents sitting collecting dust, what is more  important is who is listening.

The same point was made by a former executive with Gillette. He told me a story about when he was posted as a development executive in the UK.  While reviewing the research done by the lab, he came across an idea that had been shelved earlier. He believed it still had merit and was worth resurrecting.  He got the scientists who worked on the original technology together with others in the US, and they mocked up a prototype. But this time he decided not to funnel it through channels but to go directly to the one person who could say yes or no. This time the response was yes, and Gillette went on to make a small fortune.

So what is the purpose of these oft-repeated anecdotes found in books on innovation and told at TED talks? According to Thomas Frank it is not to inspire out of the box thinking, but rather “that the real subject of this literature was the professional-managerial audience itself.” Outside the box thinking is merely a vehicle for self-aggrandizement regarding the smart decisions made inside the box. Or not?

image credit: transmediacommoms.com

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Peter DoylePeter Doyle is an award winning media marketing, news and documentary producer using rich media to accelerate innovation and commercialization. Check me out at http://www.linkedin.com/in/peterjdoyle

This entry was posted in Book Review, Conferences, Culture & Values, Headlines, Innovation, Op Ed, Profiles of Innovators and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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