Friday, July 3, 2009

Between the Shoulders

Remember those cartoons depicting a little angel on one shoulder who whispers, “do the right thing” in one ear, while a little devil on the other shoulder urges just the opposite?

Innovators have analogous counselors on their shoulders. Instead of angels and devils, however, innovators find themselves between “prophets” and “priests.” Prophets speak about change, possibility, and how things could be different. Priests, on the other shoulder, speak about accepting reality, security, and honoring the wisdom of past. Keeping your head between these two perspectives, without losing your mind, can be a daily challenge.

I confess (where’s a priest when you need one?) that in my thirty years as a perpetual student of innovation, I have been biased toward the prophetic voice. The future. Change. New. Invention. Learning. Being on the cutting edge. Creative destruction. The Maverick Way. All very fresh, adrenalin-laced stuff.

Like many though, I often mistakenly think that the prophetic voice is about predicting the future. We believe if we can predict the future—even partially—then we have a chance to gain an edge on the competition. Yet prophetic tradition is less about predicting the future than in its about changing the way people are thinking and behaving in the present, so as to help them live more fulfilling, purposeful and loving lives. This may be more at the heart of innovations that endure with people than the new, edgy shiny surfaces of innovations that we read about in the press. The value that innovations bring in the long run may be more important than their novelty.

On the other shoulder, the innovator has to contend with the voice of the priest. Avoid risk. Disruption. Honor the “core” business. Defend market share. Manage boundaries. All very conservative, care-related stuff.

Like many others, I often mistake the priestly voice as overly concerned with preservation and loss avoidance. However, the priestly function is also about confessing—admitting our mistakes—the first step in changing our way of thinking. Perhaps the priestly and the prophetic voices are not all that opposing after all.
Webster’s definition of each word gives us a clue. Both words etymologically have the same root word “pro” which means “going before.” In the case of the priest, it is going before the herd. The priestly role in our organizations—think IT and HR—is oriented toward the organization. In the case of the prophet, this “going before” is oriented toward direction, what awaits in the future, “out there.”

The Boston Consulting Group recently published its annual Innovation Survey. One of the findings states “that a risk-averse culture has been consistently identified as one of the largest obstacles to maximizing the return on innovation investment” in past surveys and it was the biggest obstacle in the 2009 Survey. (Two sectors—technology and telecommunications—were noted as the exceptions to this finding, which cited their cultures to be a particular strength in their innovation efforts.)

Innovators can see in their mind’s eye, and even craft with a sculptor’s finesse, an elegantly designed prototype. Both can represent a persuasive and promising vision of changed thinking, demonstrating what is possible. However, the innovator cannot ignore the organization. The “herd” is never too far away. Without the organization, the innovation either will be stillborn or it will never attract the support and resources necessary to bring it into reality.

Innovators are surrounded by a multitude of voices, some prophetic, some priestly, some just Monday morning quarterbacks. We are especially grateful for the innovators among you, who, amidst all these voices, hear the still quiet voice of your customers’ needs, and listen closely to the resonances in your own imaginations.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in May 2009. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270.