The Hero Myth
Our culture celebrates business heroes, but it's a remarkably inefficient pathway to success. Everyone in your industry is right now reading books, attending workshops and taking courses that are teaching them to be more innovative, more entrepreneurial, more visionary. In fact, there has been an explosion in this market in recent years.
Maybe you're even reading one of those books. Maybe you've got some on your shelf right now that promise to teach you to be a better leader, inspire more commitment, imbue you with the tools to command more influence among your peers and employees.
But here's the thing. The books aren't working. The workshops aren't transforming us. We are not terribly good at innovation. The 2016 Global Innovation Index puts the United States 4th in the world in terms of innovation. That's not bad at all. But dig a little deeper and you'll find that we rank just 25th in terms of efficiency. In other words, we might produce a decent amount of innovation as a country, but we could be getting a lot more bang for our buck.
This inefficiency is because we're chasing down the wrong sources of innovation and success. We have become, as a culture, enamored with the hero. The person who starts a company from scratch, despite all odds and succeeds, the visionary leader who bends entire markets to his will. These people exist, to be sure, but that kind of success is rare and unpredictable.
Here at The Social Disruption, we've spent a LOT of time reading business books that promise all kinds of things...only to find out that when you think about it for even a minute, they're not really the shorthand recipes for success that they claim to be. They're not lies, exactly, just misleading treatises that obscure the truth that the much more likely path to success lies in thinking holistically and systematically about how organizations, teams and systems work rather than individuals. In other words, success comes from a more accurate understanding of the world rather bending the world to your will through sheer force of personality.
Instead of looking to your own deficiencies as as a leader with some misguided notion that innovation results from singular genius overcoming every obstacle, we suggest you keep the following core lessons, all borne out by decades and sometimes centuries of research, in mind as you determine the next direction for your business.
1. Innovation is the inevitable outcome of responding correctly to social context. That is, in order to be successful over the long haul, you need to have a good understanding of what is going on around you and what opportunities are emerging due to culture shift. We might celebrate the starving artist who's work is never appreciated in his lifetime only to be lionized years after his death, but you're in business for today. You're not trying to win 200 years from now. You're trying to win 2017. Being a visionary is great, but only if you can pay the bills this year. Understanding where the culture is at is crucial in making sure that you provide the market with a product it actually needs at time when it actually wants it.
2. Most success stories are written by people who stumble into prosperity, but they are written as if they had the right plan all along. In other words, they suffer from retrospective and confirmation bias. Beware of the person who says that they didn't get lucky, but instead they're just good. These people are often oblivious to the social factors and context that aided their success, and so they are unable to replicate the success consistently or transfer to a different field. As the old saying goes, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. But we don't want you to find the occasional nut. We want you to have so many nuts you can sell the surplus and open up a second shop selling nut related products. In order to consistently produce that kind of insight, you need to soberly and accurately assess the factors of your own success. It might mean that you sacrifice a bit of ego, but you'll gain long-term success. Just ask Warren Buffett how systematically understanding and leveraging the dynamic of luck has worked out for him (http://cnb.cx/2gaZT2V).
3. The most durable and cutting edge organizations have a deep understanding of how organizations are affected by the culture they're embedded in. While we spend untold amounts of pages extolling the virtues of individual leaders, we don't pay nearly enough attention to the structures that truly matter. Yes, it's true that you can be successful by being a once in a lifetime innovator like Steve Jobs, but you can also be wildly successful by building a smart organization that understands the social context within which it's embedded. And I'm willing to bet that you've got a better chance of constructing a smart organization than you do of being Steve Jobs.
The reason these core lessons are so difficult to keep in mind is that we're not generally training our leaders and entrepreneurs to think sociologically or about systems theory. As a culture, we're too focused on individual and psychological explanations of success that elevate the rare individual instead of celebrating the much more common and attainable model of success that privileges the organizational structure.
I work with clients across the country to help their teams understand the value of systems-level, sociological thinking. It's a type of strategic thinking, as opposed to a tactical mindset, that allows for consistent and durable success that can be replicated regardless of whether the leader is a "once-in-a-lifetime" visionary.