Lots of articles and columns wax on with advice for business leaders. They usually boil down to one or more of these objectives:
- how to attract/retain talent
- how to grow
- how to be innovative
According to consultant Dev Patnaik, these challenges look different but they’re not. They can be achieved with a single objective. “We used to think that innovation was coming up with new products and services but what we’re discovering is that the real trick is unleashing the creativity of your workforce,” says Patnaik. “The key is to figure out what the objectives are to focus on and have everyone trying 10,000 things. You don’t need to hire smarter people. You have to inspire and unleash the talents of the people who already work for you.”
Patnaik is a founder and principal of Jump Associates, a consultancy in San Mateo, Calif. and New York that blends the strategy advice of a McKinsey & Co. with the creative work like an Ideo or Frog. Its clients include Nike, Fedex, Samsung andHewlett-Packard. Jump was a catalyst behind Target‘s counter-strategy of “mass with class” that helped it compete against Wal-Mart starting in the mid- to late-1990s.
Any company that wants to achieve big growth goals by its nature is going to have to ponder the ambiguous, the unknown. Adding millions or billions of dollars in new revenue won’t come by doing what you know. If you can get people mashing new or old ideas together in the pursuit of growth, you hit the trifecta: They’ll want to work for you (or work harder for you), they’ll come up with innovative plans and those plans will help your company grow.
Patnaik co-wrote the 2009 book Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy and has been working on a new book that will tackle this idea of hybrid thinking. The culture at large, says Patnaik, is still very much siloed. It’s worse in the U.K. or France, where career paths are often determined in high school. Indian IT outsourcing firms, says Patnaik, are also vulnerable to siloed thinking. Those firms, he says, are really great at solving problems that have been set for them. When they try to help define ambiguous growth objectives for their customers, “they’re learning that they’re not that good at it,” says Patnaik (who’s a bit biased as he competes with these companies). But some, such as Cognizant and Wipro have struggled to maintain growth in employee productivity.
If Patnaik can get CEOs focused on one thing it is to curate creativity. Pick the right challenges. Set up the organization to allow people to deal with big challenges that lack clear answers. Ambiguity is a good tonic for creativity. It gets the juices flowing. The best kind of people to put to work on ambiguous growth challenges are hybrid thinkers. Patnaik, as an example, is a mechanical engineer who does business strategy but also studied anthropology at Stanford. One of his partners was a consultant for years at Deloitte and is a sculptor in his free time. For some reason, he says, three is a magic number when it comes to the ideal blend of disciplines in your background. Mark Parker, the chief executive of Nike, is an expert marketer, an athlete and can sketch as well as anyone in the building. “You want people who are part humanist, part technologist and part capitalist,” says Patnaik.
Schools, unfortunately, aren’t doing enough to nourish this kind of hybrid thinking in kids. The usual culprits are to blame: overemphasis on testing, cut backs to music and arts programs. But there are some shining examples, such as the design-construction high school called Studio H in North Carolina. Cathy N. Davidson, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, has done a lot of writing on this, especially as it relates to collaboration within digital culture.
If anything, the world’s challenges are getting more ambiguous as change accelerates. More hybrid thinking is the solution.