Q&A: Innovative Growth
Stephen Zades and Jane Stephens argue that sustainable business growth fueled by ideas and innovation, not M&As and cost cutting, is an endangered species in their forthcoming book, Mad Dogs, Dreamers and Sages: Growth in The Age of Ideas (Elounda Press, September 2003). Their argument is supported by results from their two years of research, dubbed the Odyssey Project on Imaginative Intelligence, in which the pair interviewed leaders and luminaries in various fields, from education to theater, to discover sources of innovation and alternative approaches to organizational growth.
Here, Zades further discusses the project with Inc.com's senior editor Carole Matthews.
What inspired you to embark on the Odyssey Project?
We began the Odyssey Project on Imaginative Intelligence in the fall of 2001. What inspired the project was our desire to study sustainable growth through innovation.
The dominant forms of growth CEOs and managers all too often default to today are growth through massive and obsessive cost cutting, serial acquisitions, deadening consolidations, or aggressive accounting practices -- all of which are not sustainable. That's the kind of growth we wanted to challenge.
In 20 years of business coming up the ranks, I've experienced acquisition-based and cost-cutting growth firsthand. More recently, as a CEO of a successful mid-size company we chose to build organically -- from within. The quality of the two kinds of growth is very different. To grow a company through the strength of ideas requires you to organize, structure, and take action differently.
I was also inspired by the need and a belief that their had to be new tools to make the elusive synergies in strategic M&A work better.
How did you choose which fields to research?
Our search focused on leaders across a broad spectrum of fields who had demonstrated the capacity to imagine their organizations differently. People who had, what we came to call "Imaginative Intelligence": people with a capacity to originate new ideas and cultivate them as individuals and in organizations.
We interviewed individuals across 15 fields: advertising, anthropology, architecture, art, business, education, entertainment, journalism, literature, philosophy, poetry, psychology, publishing, religion, and science. They included social scientist Daniel Yankelovich, poet Maya Angelou, futurist Alvin Toffler, journalist T George Harris, art historian Kirk Varnedoe, architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and many others, who had demonstrated the ability to build distinct and compelling offerings and organizations as well as the capacity to reinvent over a long period of time--in most cases 20 years or more, both in cycles of growth and decline.
Which disciplines revealed the most promising ideas?
What we discovered was that the sparks for big new ideas were coming from the knowledge, ideas, insights, art and cultures of multiple disciplines, not from the stale fumes circulating within a particular industry.
All of the fields made huge contributions to our new understanding into the dynamics and holistic nature necessary to create sustainable growth. One of the most revealing aspects of our study was the issue of language itself.
Language matters a lot in business. As Warren Buffet puts it, "Bad terminology is the enemy of good thinking." This is truly an age of ideas, and we need a lexicon beyond the current business vernacular, which is built on industrial and military images.
We found the arts -- the language of the imagination -- offered a rich source for businesses looking for new ways of thinking. The new lexicon includes words familiar to all of us -- and critical to business -- but have very different meanings from how they're used in business today.
Take the word contradiction. In business it generally has a negative connotation. It implies disagreement, opposition, discrepancy and even poor judgment. Most businesses fear the discord, inconsistency and conflicting ideas contradictions might invoke.
The innovators we studied embrace it. They see contradiction as portals for growth -- a way to spark new ideas and make unlikely connections that can ultimately result in new opportunities.
What ideas can owners and CEOs take away from your research to foster sustainable growth in their organizations?
Lots! That's why we wrote Mad Dogs, Dreamers and Sages: Growth in the Age of Ideas -- to share our research and our ideas about what really builds sustainable growth, both personally and in a company.
Here are some of key findings that apply to any business looking to grow from within.
Think about innovation as a team, not as a solo sport. It takes the innovator or innovators to create the idea, but the people -- the organization -- must be able to see it's a great idea.
Get rid of the myths that blind the organization to real innovation. Many myths center on misconceptions of the creative process itself. As T George Harris tells us, "It's the miner's headlamp, not the eureka flash, that drives reliable innovation. The process of innovation is the sweaty work of digging through tons of information to find a few golden nuggets -- mainly unlikely knowledge combinations."
Ideas are manifestations of discovery. Discovery is the fuel of innovation and requires risk, experimentation, dead-ends and failures. Out of those messy explorations can come our biggest breakthroughs.
Finally, structure your organization to know what you know. So many companies do not know their own intellectual knowledge or stories. Never forget that the Wright brothers creatively solved a problem that had stumped Leonardo da Vinci. Their flying machine was conceived in a spirit of invention by using what lay at hand, by seeing in the pieces and parts kicking around the shop the potential that would change everything.