Nothing gives you more insight into your own culture than seeing someone from a very different culture adopt it wholesale and express it as-is in his own language.
Recently, a famous Japanese professor from MIT came to speak at my company, inspiring us to be freer, more creative thinkers. His slides flourished one or two giant kanji characters, screaming “FUTURE (未来)” and “CRISIS (危機)” and “EXPRESSION (表現),” and flashed photos of a hurricane vortex sweeping toward a continent or a blue-white iceberg piercing deep into an arctic sea. I felt slapped in the face by the American trope.
His message was the same, essentially, as the one that I preach day after day: that operational efficiencies and incremental innovations, based on visible trends and big data, are crucial for big companies. But just as crucial is nurturing disruptive innovation approaches, trying to understand and collaborate with individuals and extreme users hanging out at the frayed edges of the normal curve, living in the land of low probability. Because that’s where the thing to topple all of the big data and redefine the curve will come from.
Anyway, fabulous. He had an inspiring, exciting message, and he made people feel bad about themselves. As if what they’re doing now is worthless. In a more exclusive second meeting, he looked at some of our latest innovations and declared them boring. He thrilled us with his verbal slaps and derisive laughs. His magnetic presence and bold criticisms sent an electric shock through us.
Which we probably needed. Sometimes I, too, feel we are too humble and cautious and, dare I say it, just possibly a wee bit boring. (But so very nice.)
I’m afraid, though, that he rubbed me the wrong way. What struck me was his use of the macho metaphors that pervade American technology and business strategy. Metaphors I don’t normally hear in Japanese innovation and strategy meetings, or at least not as brazenly. Conquering, battling, charging the mountain peak. War Western style, blunt and in your face, not the intricate maneuverings extolled in Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, where sidestepping can have as much power as a direct attack.
These confrontational war metaphors were more appropriate for the industrial age. You know, back when you actually knew where the boundaries of a product’s stakeholders lay. (Here are the developers, the suppliers, the manufacturers, the competitors, the customers, etc., all neatly laid out in a linear chart.) That was before high-tech product lifecycles ramped up to lightening speed and information flooded the world.
Many companies are moving towards codesigning products and services with as well as for customers, whether the customer is an individual, a business, or a government. New kinds of partnerships are forming, companies are sharing and leasing intellectual property rather than simply hoarding and guarding it, and platform-based horizontal ecosystems (example: Android apps and devices) are emerging as more the norm than rigid, capital-intensive vertical integration (example: Sony Playstation and its games).
Apple, of course, is always the elephant in the consumer electronics room these years, with its powerful success in controlling its whole value chain.
Let’s all pause, now, for a little Apple envy…
Remember the old days, when only your nerdy older brother loved Apple?
Anyway, in an environment where your competitor is potentially also your partner, your supplier, and your customer, is war really the right metaphor? In this situation, conquering is less the challenge than coordinating. Who owns what, who is responsible for what, how do we communicate?
I vote for dance as the new metaphor. On my train ride home, I fantasized about rewriting the professor’s presentation. Innovation would be about choosing the ideal partner, feeling the rhythm of the landscape, leading and following, choreographing moments of stillness between frenzied crescendos of interaction, creating patterns together, and finding the right touch–light enough so that no one freezes or stumbles, yet firm enough to keep the movement flowing.