What Macklemore Can Teach Us About Corporate Innovation

The last time I had a good grip on pop culture was late in the Clinton administration, so imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon Macklemore singing Downtown on Jimmy Fallon last week.   Actually, it wasn’t just Macklemore, but a whole musical entourage including a bunch of rappers I’ve never heard of.

The performance was going quite well, but perhaps somewhat conventionally, until about two minutes into the song, when a very skinny man in tights with holes in the knees burst onto the stage, singing the refrain at a pitch that could only be described as Streisandesque.

OK, I thought, this guy (I later found out his name is Eric Nally), with his flamboyant dance moves and his 70s porn star mustache, is the new Freddie Mercury. He’s not doing anything that fresh. But then he started swinging around the long tassels attached to his blouse sleeves like taffeta windmills and I had to concede that he was on his own plane of creativity.

It wasn’t just his performance that impressed me. It was the marvelously discontinuous combination of all the elements on that stage. It was bizarre and thrilling at the same time—kind of like watching the Cubs legitimately compete for the pennant.

I was so dumbstruck that I immediately logged onto the world’s most authoritative research resource: YouTube. After a bit of digging, I found the Downtown video and confirmed that I am slightly behind the pop culture curve, as I was the 51,789,921st soul to view it. If by chance you’re not part of that exclusive club, take a look at the video here (warning: some of the lyrics are naughty):  Macklemore and Lewis: Downtown

Whether you like the video or not (I love it, by the way), the question I have for you is this: Could something like this ever emerge from a corporate development process? Could an innovation team inside a company ever generate a concept so new?

I can imagine Macklemore and Lewis pitching the concept to the team . . .

Right after the scene where Macklemore drives around on a Harley with a large stuffed moose head strapped to the front of it, we’re going to cut to Eric leading a phalanx of 300-pound rappers on mopeds. He’ll be riding in a Roman-style chariot pulled by four rider-less motorcycles. What do you think?

We all know how well that would go.

Macklemore and Lewis avoid this risk because they are independent—the only artists in the last twenty years to top the Billboard charts without the support of a major label. That independence, I suspect, is a big reason why they’re able to produce such a wonderfully creative product.  If they were running their work through corporate approval committees, their videos would probably look something like this:  One Direction: Perfect

Wasn’t that horrible? Didn’t that look like it was assembled by a team as if they were knocking together a piece of IKEA furniture?

Why do corporate decision-making processes squeeze all the life out of creativity and innovation? Is there something pathological about company structures or incentives that makes this inevitable?

Maybe. But I’m more inclined to chalk it up to human nature and how it manifests in groups of people, whether the context is business, politics, religion, or whatever.

Group decision-making processes will invariably identify and prefer ideas that appeal to the majority. Radical ideas, ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom and make people uncomfortable, will be rejected outright or diluted bit by bit until they are soggy and digestible for the middle of the bell curve.

This is perfect for the world of politics, where radical ideas can quickly lead to people swinging from lampposts. And it also works in business when the mission calls for incremental improvement, or for mobilizing the company to take on a large, uncontroversial task.

But when real innovation is required, consider setting aside anything resembling democratic principles. Breakthrough corporate innovation is almost always driven by powerful despots (e.g. Steve Jobs), mission-driven entrepreneurs (another form of despotism), or small, autonomous teams like Lockheed’s Skunk Works or IBM’s first PC team.

Here’s my personal checklist for facilitating corporate innovation:

Keep teams very small. Every additional team member (starting with the second!) significantly reduces the likelihood of developing a truly innovative idea. Teams tend to swell in size because modern management techniques place a high value on cross-functional collaboration. That’s great for many tasks, but not for innovation.

Embrace team competition. I strongly believe that three small teams competing against each other will generate more and better solutions than one large team. You would think this would be self-evident given the virtues of competition in our capitalist system, but I often find people very resistant to this idea. Perhaps it feels wasteful somehow. After all, that’s what the Russkies used to tell themselves—that having more than one factory making soap was a waste of the Motherland’s resources!

Staff the teams with kooks. Let’s face it, most people are not capable of generating radically new ideas. They just aren’t. Some consultants will claim that innovation is a process that can be learned, but I believe that’s only true in cases of incremental innovation, like tagless t-shirts or the 14th flavor of Cheerios.

It’s the kooks that come up with the big ideas. Their brains are wired differently, and they’ve spent a lifetime honing their ability to fight or ignore the persistently eroding drip-drip-drip of the majority’s skepticism.

Protect the kooks! Even though the kooks are well insulated against other peoples’ opinions, they are not immune to the political sabotage that permeates organizations. Driven by resentment, fear, or disgust, the normal people will ostracize the kooks, sometimes through soft neglect, and other times through naked aggression. A great CEO will know who her kooks are, and will make it clear to the organization that they operate under her ever-present protection.

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