If Macbeth is right and life is nothing but a tale of sound and fury signifying nothing – and indeed even if he’s not – then, in business as in life, to be boring is the unforgivable sin.
And yet too many businesses default into being just that: boring. Not because they set out to be but because they believe, at some subliminal level, that being conventional is the natural and desirable state for any business. And besides, it feels safer that way.
But convention is nothing more than the tyranny of the dead. And, if the Theory of Evolution teaches us anything, it’s that life is one grand experiment in an ever changing laboratory. Which is why Jack Welsh got it right when he said: when the rate of change outside your business exceeds the rate of change inside it, the end is nigh. In other words, innovate or perish.
Innovate or perish
It’s not just about innovation in product, but even more importantly, innovation in process and systems. The aim is to dare to do it radically better than before, to fail often and (hopefully) occasionally to succeed spectacularly. Put differently, to experiment boldly and in so doing to avoid the unforgivable sin.
This caused me to reflect on the two great enemies of innovation:
- The self-limiting belief in most people that they are not creative; and
- The self-limiting belief in most people that “nothing is new under the sun”.
Let’s quickly deal with each.
It gives me great pain to have to quote none other than Shane Geha. This is because younger brothers loathe having to quote their older brothers on anything, but truth be told, I scoured the internet intently to find an alternative source and failed. For over three decades, Shane has been chirping in my ear: “Before the cat can catch the rat, it must first believe it can.” It’s a thought so lacking in profundity as to be bordering on the banal (sorry bro), but it is also infuriatingly true. And never truer than when applied to innovation.
In other words: if you believe you can’t do a thing, you certainly can’t do it. If you believe you can do it, you quite possibly can.
I’m not sure exactly how best to cultivate self-belief, but what I can say for sure is that it helps not to over think it. Just have a go – and as the saying goes: don’t take life too seriously, you won’t be getting out of it alive anyway.
And don’t wait to be great before you start believing in yourself. Fake it till you make it. “I am the greatest”, was the cry made famous by Muhammad Ali – far less known is his quiet confession, “I said that even before I knew I was.”
Nothing is new under the sun
The second objection is the more potent challenge because it happens to be true. Just about anything you can think of, or compose, has in some fashion already been thought of or composed – you are merely rearranging the pebbles. So say the post-modernist naysayers.
My rejoinder is to turn to perhaps the most creative and prolific artist of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso. To Picasso, “bad artists copy, good artists steal” and “art is the elimination of the unnecessary”. In other words, everything is new under the sun – provided it is touched by a creative hand or edited by a creative mind.
And for those who still doubt, think of the legion of songs made famous by brilliant renditions that far eclipsed the original. So much so, that the original releases are often obliterated from popular consciousness.
One of my favourite examples is the song “Unchained Melody”. The original was released by Todd Duncan in 1955 and frankly was so bad, it’s actually painful to listen to. But when the Righteous Brothers reinterpreted it, the song was utterly transformed and became a number one hit. To use the language of Picasso, the Righteous Brothers ‘stole’ the song, re-expressed its essence as an anguished love ballad, and created a song that’s hardly recognisable from the original.
You can also improve on what is already great. Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” took a number one hit by Dolly Parton and turned it into the best-selling single by a female vocalist in music history.
And at the distinct risk of betraying my hopelessly romantic side, here’s a more obscure example: “When You Walk in the Room”. Compare the somewhat pedestrian original release by Jackie DeShannon in 1963 with Paul Carrack’s striking rendition 24 years later.
So what am I trying to say?
You don’t need to be original to be creative. But, you do need to believe in your power to create and you must have a resolve (nay, an undying obsession) to avoid the unforgivable sin.
So go out and make a dent in the world. If you get it wrong, the good news is that virtually no one will notice – there are a lot of unremarkable dents out there. That’s why no one remembers Todd Duncan. But if you get it right, then for a brief time at least – Warhol says 15 minutes but perhaps much much longer – the world will heave a giant sigh of relief and applaud you for not being boring.