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On the Hypocrisy of Innovators

On the Hypocrisy of Innovators

Recently I spoke to a conference of leading business school deans about the prospects of the MBA degree. My speech was entitled The Future has Come and Gone and You’ve Missed It. Admittedly this was a pathetic attempt to play the rebellious provocateur to what I occasionally imagine to be a well connected secret society, intriguing cabal or at least the staid establishment – “Smithers, come here.” Other than my obvious hypocrisy, I do teach at a top business school and I am of sufficient age and circumstance to be deemed the Man that is holding you down, my best intention was to awaken the intelligentsia and disrupt this universal order before it was too late – the revolution will be podcast.

As if acting out at a G20 Summit, I threw every rock I could gather at their windows, spray painted their Beemer and chained myself to the entrance of their favorite sushi joint: I reported how even the best business schools treat creativity as if it were an amusing elective even though they well know that numerous studies cite it as the most important skill for 21 Century leaders; why MBAs are dropping out of contrived action-learning projects and tuning in to a real vibe on Kickstarter; how all the best faculty are cheesing it up on TED and Big Think; the way Kiva and the cult of microfinancers gather during the full moon to levitate investment banks off their foundations through small kind acts of derring-do. The grumble turned to a rumble and finally a full out coup d’etat. In a feverish trance these deans generated radical ideas, swore an oath of allegiance to upstarts everywhere and sang Woody Guthrie folksongs to the small children in the villages around San Francisco. We were innovating our way forward or at least that’s what I thought at the time.

And then it happened. From the quarry of my conscience came that coursing voice that grinds my reason to dust and calls me out as a great pretender – “You will never make way for the new, the deviant, the subversive until you are willing to destroy the very things you have spent your career creating.” Surely I wasn’t talking about myself. Didn’t these deans invite me to speak to them because of my history of breakthrough accomplishments? And there it was right in front of me. The hypocrisy of innovators – the perennial outsiders – who inevitably become insiders once they succeed. It took decades of arduous and highly competitive work to climb to the top of my profession. How could I expect these deans to kick the ladder out from under them when I the so called Dean of Innovation wasn’t willing to do the same myself? This was the real price of innovation. It was a flashback to my youth as a Teamster on the loading docks where such a challenge meant throw down or stand down. I chose the latter and disappeared into the elevator.

Of course this isn’t really a referendum on the relative merits of the MBA degree so let’s forgo the quibbling and associated trivialities. The same challenges of professional education hold sway for law or medicine or whatever vagaries you studied in the hallowed halls of Old Ivy or Tech or State. This story is about you and me and how our desire to hang on to what we have stops us from having what we seek.

You say you want things to improve – progress – to become better and new. It’s for the children or the earth or eternity. You do your best to walk the talk. You give your time, toil and treasure to the noble cause. You want your leaders and representatives to do the same but they seldom do. They too hang on to the belief well past the expiration date or the lauded position years beyond their commitment to it. You post your most ardent thoughts and feelings but the only thing that changes is your new status as the unfriend. And then it hits you – no – scares you. What if you actually have to do something yourself – personally – to make a difference? Yuck! Not that self-righteous Gandhi bumper sticker – “Be the change you want to see in the world” – plastered on the tail of some smug hybrid or late model hipster mobile that never seems able to maneuver a simple left turn. Yea, that annoying thing.

Think of it as perpetual Lent. What are you willing to give up – your wheels, preferred physician or that sweet deduction for that timeshare at the shore? And you thought chocolate abstinence was a hard penance. Everything costs something. Not just in crass materialist terms but in all ways for we make emotional, intellectual and spiritual payments as well. You know that you need to discard some old ideas to make way for the new ones and yet you hoard them like the bewildered and befuddled characters on late night cable television. I’m starting to think that I may not be the only hypocrite around these parts.

OK, I know, physician heal thyself. So here’s a little home brewed concoction to remedy what ails me. Feel free to take a little sip yourself:

Remember it all starts with a lie: Edison lied about the incandescent light bulb to the press. Think of it as announcing that you can create cold fusion power in the next six weeks. That’s what old Tom did. He told a great big fib but several years later he lit up the world. Innovation is about what doesn’t exist yet. Innovators see it – others don’t. Find a new vision but remember until it becomes real, material and actionable it’s still a lie to everyone else.

Befriend the new: Crooked line Picasso, economic agitator wild Joe Schumpeter and all forms of fertile deities have sounded the barbaric yawp that to create is to first destroy. But Anton Ego, that fusty critic from the movie Ratatouille, provided the mantra – “The new needs friends.” Focus less on what you lose and more on giving your great work to a good person with a good cause. Sure they might be a rat but maybe one that can really cook.

Find your own undiscovered country: Your therapist has it backwards. Feelings seldom change actions but actions often change feelings. Sometimes just tinkering, puttering or fiddling with something inside of yourself takes you on the great adventure. On the back of a student’s paper Oxford professor JRR Tolkien scribbled “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” and thus begun the Middle Earth saga. Though an eminent medieval scholar, his great discovery was finding his own voice and sharing it.

Stop thinking about your hypocrisy: When Hercules wrestled Antaeus for an apple, every time he threw the giant to the ground, Gaia, the original mother earth, made the brute bigger and stronger. The hero eventually caught on and held the colossus in the air thus eliminating his source of power. Similarly, it may be that simply not thinking about your hypocrisy is the best way to handle it.

I’m not sure any of these will really cure me of my innovator’s hypocrisy but I am already starting to feel a little better. Maybe it’s the false courage that comes with this kind of libation. Perhaps I will embark on new career – folk singer, playwright or game show host. Or maybe I will just do a little less of the same. Now there’s a plan I can start tomorrow or next week or when I have some time to get to it. I wonder if my muse is free for lunch on Tuesday? I know I have her phone number around here somewhere.

Jeff DeGraff

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