There are many competing approaches concerning the most effective structure for an innovation team. Recently I stumbled across a concept for team structure that I believe could yield positive results for practitioners of innovation, and its chief value may derive from its very simplicity. With a tip of the cap to Scott Anthony’s “Innovation Bipolarity” (innovationexcellence.com, 17 November 2011), I term this concept “polar innovation.” I use the term not because it involves cold temperatures and brave explorers (such as Jim Collins’ story of Antarctic explorers in Great by Choice), but, rather, because it embodies the intentional establishing of a team structure that forces opposing ideas into a unified approach to drive innovation. Polar innovation is about understanding the power of opposites and contradictory thinking within a team to generate new ideas and avoid stagnation.
A great example of polar innovation comes from an explorer who marched his way through a dramatically different climate than Antarctica. The Lost City of Z recounts the story of the famous American explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, who focused his peregrinations on the Amazon region in search of a mythical lost city in the early 1900s. According to David Grann, Fawcett was “the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose.” Although Fawcett’s story contains numerous fascinating elements, one portion relevant to the modern innovator concerns the team makeup of one of his expeditions in the Amazon. For one of his South American trips, Fawcett assembled a team consisting of two very different key individuals. The first key member of the team was James Murray, who had braved sub-freezing temperatures and desolate landscapes in the Arctic. As Grann recounts, the combination of Fawcett and Murray “seemed like the perfect match, [combining] the great polar scientist [with] the great Amazon explorer.” The second key member of the expedition was Henry Costin, a British Army Corporal who responded in 1910 to one of Fawcett’s newspaper advertisements seeking members to join his team. Costin was a gymnastics instructor in the Army and was in great physical shape and an excellent shot with a rifle.
As the group drove deeper and deeper into the jungle, the Arctic explorer proved ill-suited for the ravages of the Amazon while the Army Corporal excelled at handling the demands of the environment, ranging from intense heat to constant danger from poisonous plants and animals. Murray became increasingly contentious as they drove deeper into the jungle, and constantly questioned Fawcett’s leadership skills and strategic direction. Over time, Murray proved incapable of keeping pace with the expedition and could not tolerate the deprivations and hunger of the trek into the jungle. This lack of performance grated on Fawcett and reached a boiling point where Fawcett hired a local with a mule to take Murray, who was suffering from numerous maladies from the jungle and near death, back to civilization. Fawcett was bitter at having to divert his expedition for a brief period of time to handle the situation with Murray, though in the end Murray survived. This interaction set the tone for future team structures for Fawcett, as noted by Grann:
Fawcett was an electric and polarizing figure, and his men fell into two camps: the Costins and the Murrays. The Costins gravitated toward him, relishing his daring and élan, while the Murrays despised his ferocity and unforgivingness. An officer among the Murrays said that Fawcett ‘was probably the nastiest man I have ever met in this world and his dislike of me was only exceeded by my dislike of him.’ [Another officer was] a Costin [and said] ‘Fawcett and I, despite the disparity of our ages, became great friends.’
Grann points out that the members of Fawcett’s subsequent expeditions usually fell into the camp of the Costins and Murrays, and this framework helped to balance against Fawcett’s passionate leadership while still inspiring him to continue to press forward in his explorations. This dichotomy between the Costins and the Murrays led me to think about innovation teams. At first glance, Fawcett is emblematic of the innovative entrepreneur who is seized by an idea and pursues it, without rest, to the end. That entrepreneur typically surrounds himself or herself with a team of individuals dedicated to the same pursuit (Costins). However, if everyone shares the same zeal for the objective, then it is possible that the team could suffer from a lack of grounding and could also isolate themselves from broader thinking about how to make progress on their innovation.
The very idea of including team members with negative thoughts (Murrays) on an innovation team runs counter to what we sense intuitively about the best formula for success in generating new ideas. As Terry Tietzen, founder and CEO of Edatanetworks, relates in a recent New York Times interview, one must “guard against negativity in a creative company. Negativity will wipe out innovation. You get one guy saying, “I don’t think we can,” and then everybody starts thinking that.” In other words, Tietzen sees danger in a team that includes Murrays because of their potential to drag down the visionary Fawcetts. Another perspective on this dilemma is provided by Eli Pariser, creator of the concept of “filter bubbles.” According to Pariser, filter bubbles are “confined spaces of web interaction where a person only sees certain information because of personalization and filtering of content on the internet. Such filtering can diminish innovation by decreasing the breadth of ideas to which an individual is exposed.” Interestingly, Tiezen also alludes to the importance of a divergence of opinions in another observation on innovation, where he states “In real innovation, being comfortable isn’t good. I don’t want to be comfortable. I always want to be on edge, because that edge gives you energy and excitement. What’s new? What’s next? That’s how you stay ahead.”
The concept of avoiding the negative strikes me as a potential downfall of a team of Fawcetts and Costins to the extent that no one will offer alternative opinions to those presented by the visionary leader. Indeed, the durable and seemingly indefatigable Fawcett finally met his fate during his last quest to find the lost city of Z in the Amazon. On this endeavor he was not accompanied by any Murrays. Rather, he was accompanied by his son, whose allegiance to him proved even stronger than that of Costin. On this journey, Fawcett marched into the jungle one day in 1925 in the Mato Rosso region of Brazil with his son and was never seen again. It could have been due to his lack of having a Murray around to keep him grounded. As Grann recounts in one incident relayed by Fawcett’s son, “Daddy had gone on ahead at such a speed that we lost sight of him altogether.” Grann states that this incident was “just as Costin had feared: there was no one to stop Fawcett.”
Likewise, Murray left the Amazon with a desire to return to Arctic exploration, but became stranded on a shop locked in the ice. Murray led a mutiny against the captain of the ship and set out across the ice with his fellow mutineers and several sleds. He was never seen again. Perhaps Murray, too, needed a Costin and a Fawcett.
As we assemble our teams to pursue innovation, we should size up our colleagues to determine if there are Costins and Murrays in our midst. Although Costins will keep our spirits high and overcome any obstacle we throw in their path, we should also consider the value of the Murrays who could direct us to go around, rather than over, the obstacle, or to give up a pursuit altogether and try another approach.
David Grann, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (New York: Vintage Books, 2010)
Erik Sherman, “Personalization: a Blow Against Innovation,” cbsnews.com (December 22, 2011)
Adam Bryant, “Want to Innovate? Feed a Cookie to the Monster,” New York Times (March 24, 2012)
Scott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.