Creativity and Innovation
Regular readers of this blog may recall that I am a big fan of Jim Collins (best known as the author of the best-selling book “Good to Great”), and secondly, that fishing is one of my hobbies.
Collins has been an avid rock-climber since he was a teenager, and often talks about lessons learned from that sport and how they apply to business and to life in general.
I have been an avid fisherman since my youth. I can also see lessons learned from fishing which apply to business and life, although I am not as eloquent as Jim Collins and have yet to author a best-seller.
To my eye, rock climbing looks like a lot of hard work compared to fishing. The idea of dangling off a sheer rock face on a skinny-looking rope high up a mountain with the wind blowing hard is not something which appeals to me. If something is going to be dangling on the end of a line, I’d rather it be a fish than me; but variety is the spice of life.
I have enormous respect for Jim Collins as an accomplished rock climber as well as for his professional achievements and the impact he has had on how people think, in business as well as the non-profit sector.
Early in his teaching career, he taught a course on creativity at Stanford. The basic thrust of this course, he explained to me, was that everyone is born creative, but that somehow for most people a combination of factors — school, family, social forces, peer pressure, etc. — dulls, buries, and intimidates that creative force, rendering it partly or wholly dormant.
The course focused on helping students to rediscover their creative force.
One important step in the process is to overcome the fear of doing or saying something silly. In other words, trying to silence the common fear we all have of making mistakes. Another is trusting one’s own interpretation and perception of data, rather than always relying on the views of others, or the conventional wisdom.
During my interview with him earlier this year, Jim Collins and I were discussing creativity in the context of innovation, which is a hot topic in China today. Some would argue it’s at the top of the improvement agenda for Chinese companies. It’s also debated in the context of the current state of Chinese education, which some say doesn’t focus enough on developing creativity in young people.
I think innovation is a very important agenda item in Chinese businesses, but I am not convinced that it’s as high on the priority list as some would say. For one thing, I see a lot of evidence of innovation in the Chinese commercial world, although much of it remains largely unseen by people outside China. This is especially true in business model innovation, but you can find a growing range of examples in services and products as well.
In the American context, Collins has said he thinks innovation may be over-rated, because companies more often get into trouble not by lacking innovation but by lacking or straying from fundamental disciplines.
Clearly, innovation without discipline is not enough for survival, let alone success, in today’s turbulent times.
So, you may ask, what does all of this have to do with fishing? Nothing, really, except for something I saw while fishing from a boat a few weeks ago in the South China Sea.
We came upon a small skiff with two Chinese fishermen aboard, working their nets, and on their heads they were wearing an amazingly simple type of home-made, all-weather hats, which I’d never seen before.
These were made from the kind of white Styrofoam plastic boxes which are widely used to transport fresh seafood due to their insulating properties and light weight.
A hole was cut in the top of the box cover, just big enough to fit the head size of the wearer, and a chin strap fixed on, and — presto — you have a tailor-made weather-proof fishing hat which protects the wearer from both sun and rain. It’s also a green product, made of recycled material. Very cool.
A brilliant example of home-grown innovation involving eclectic use of available materials at virtually no cost.
I doubt that top sportswear brands are going to come out with a line of hats resembling these, but that’s OK. Premium brands have their place, and so does home-grown innovation at the most basic of levels and so on up the ladder of sophistication.
These fishermen are proof that you don’t need an advanced degree to think creatively or find innovative solutions. They also clearly overcame the fear of looking silly. Hats off to them!