Follow the Innovative Leader

Is your company set in its ways? Here's why.

While Thomas Friedman was with top government and economic officials (plus Bono) at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, several weeks ago, I was in Las Vegas with leaders of public accounting firms. Both of our meetings were brimming with mostly older, mostly white guys. And all of them were looking for someone with answers. They’re probably still looking.

We are in uncharted territory and without a successful past experience to draw from our leaders have no GPS to point the way. In fact, past experience is often a curse on innovation.

“It’s a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off,” wrote Janet Rae-Dupree, an expert on science and emerging technology in Silicon Valley, in a New York Times op-ed column titled “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike.” “Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.”

You’ve heard the expression, “He’s set in his ways.” That’s a verbal pointer to a physiological phenomenon. As we accumulate experience, our neural pathways are literally being set into ruts. “Those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path,” concludes Rae-Dupree. Experience not only matters less than innovation in our current conditions, experience may actually thwart innovation.

A look through recorded history reveals that most of the great, transformative innovations on record were created by people before they hit their fortieth birthdays. This is not an ageist statement; it simply reflects the mental ruttedness that often accompanies experience and its godmother, age. This is a natural phenomenon. That’s why great organizations give new employees real work on day one. They know that when the next generation is given real challenges, they meet them with a “beginner’s mind,” free from the curse of past experience.

This is not to disregard the wisdom that comes from experience. The Zen Master is highly valued by all traditions and age groups. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that the next generation—and many people who aren’t at your decision-making tables—have valuable, transformative contributions to make regardless of rank or experience. The bottom line is that it’s not our leaders’ job to have the answers; it’s their job to discover them.

For decades, employees have given their labor to The Man in exchange for a biweekly paycheck. As part of the deal, The Man was supposed to be trustworthy and provide solutions because even in this day and age most people want to be led. We want someone to figure it out for us, and then just tell us what to do. That model won’t work in uncharted territory. We need to get off our collective butts and start chipping in. Greatness is built with the hands of the many, not the few.

Being a good leader means being curious and humble enough to find and midwife the answers to problems wherever they appear. Now, look around your leadership table and ask, “Where are the innovative ideas coming from?”

Rebecca Ryan is the founder of Next Generation Consulting, a Madison-based market research firm. Her book Live First, Work Second is available at nextgenerationconsulting.com.

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