Getting into Innovation

I have a picture of an elephant! But it is no ordinary elephant. For a start it is 45 feet tall and about 30 people are dancing and waving and playing music from a platform on top of the elephant, and a sultan sits on a throne perched on a veranda on one side. It looks enormous and takes up the whole of Piccadilly in London: a big, wide, main thoroughfare. And of course it is man-made. The elephant is astonishing as it actually walks (ie lifts each foot in turn) very slowly round the streets of London with a crew of 3 driving it. The arching trunk waves to the crowd and then disgorges gallons of water over an enthusiastic quarter, which takes it in good, dripping grace. The ears flap; the eyes move and the eyelids blink and the tail gently swings from side to side.

Describing the unfolding spectacle as a model elephant show is a huge injustice. It is an astonishing, live art show on the streets of a capital city that was not built for cars, and certainly never for this creation. The crowd of 500,000 who came out onto the streets of London to witness the spectacle are quite simply entranced.

What is less obvious is the complexity of what is unfolding. One thousand people took three years to bring this beast to life and to London. That group comprised a number of artists; painters, sculptors and performance artists. There were engineers specialising in hydraulics, electronics and mechanics. Logisticians got the mechanical animal across the Channel and onto the streets. And then there were writers, marketing people, project managers and so on. What is clear is that they worked as an integrated team. No one could describe what was seen, as simply a work of art, or a piece of electronic wizardry. Neither is it a mechanical marvel or a street spectacle. Of course it is all of these things and more. And that team worked way beyond their comfort zone to create it. They must have been outside and into the unknown within minutes of undertaking the task. Thinking big was the first item on their agenda.

This elephant strikes me as a metaphor for the twenty-first century organisation. Working for such an organisation, will mean working increasingly on intangible outputs, in unknown and unknowable territory and finding new ways of rising to those challenges. Critical amongst these is the ability to innovate; to fail often in order to succeed; and to make sure that all knowledge is instantly shared around the team. And is creativity a provenance of the few in this arena? Absolutely not.

Sultan's elephant

The creativity is as much in solving the logistical problems as in the imagination of those that conceived the project in the first place. Every single member of that team was learning every day and every single person was stretched. That was a huge part of the motivation to succeed. Did they have time for formal courses? I doubt it. But did they pause frequently to reflect; did they try to understand where each functional group was coming from; of course. This whole process was an explosion of learning. There is, in these exceptional circumstances, no other way. Increasingly, in our broader industry, there will be no alternative if you want to survive, let alone thrive.

What the elephant tells us is that we need a new way of dealing with our people. The brilliance of the elephant comes from the fact that a multi-faceted team is stunningly productive because it is multi-faceted, not in spite of that. And the diversity of the team is not just about functional skills. It concerns age, ethnicity and gender as well. And new models of employment: full-time, part-time on contract, as freelance, or as permanent staff. There can be no silos and no hierarchy and in return, no limit to what can be achieved.

And if you have just been appointed as the Elephant team’s chief learning officer, what would you do to facilitate their success? You would need some systems and processes, perhaps, to facilitate informal learning and make sure the key knowledge was captured in whatever format suited the group. You might help action learning sets get established; facilitate a coaching and mentoring culture and get the team dynamics right. You would be a part of the delivery of the project, not a remote figure on the side. You would not be putting on a programme of courses or trying to work out the ROI on the investment.

If what you would do instinctively for the Elephant conflicts with what you feel you have to do now, I would ask which of these approaches is wrong-headed, and which points forward? And then I would align myself accordingly.

This post was written a few year’s ago for a journal that never got published. A few people were asked to contribute and this was the only article that was submitted. So here it is belatedly!

2 Responses to “Getting into Innovation” - Leave a Comment

  1. Nigel,
    I love your use of this extraordinary event as a metaphor of the 21st century organization. You’re right that the ways we work in the future will be quite unlike those of the industrial age. The organizations that succeed will be those that combine great leadership and learning with drive and purpose. If the results can all be as spectacular as your elephant it should be an exciting future.

  2. Ara another helpful comment. I am pleased that it struck a chord. I wrote it a while ago and it has been sitting around doing nothing for a while so I thought that, at the very least, I should post it!

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