Monday, May 26, 2014

Innovators are Rare

In Wired for Culture, Mark Pagel observes that the vast majority of people are not truly creative or inventive, but rather are copiers of others. And by vast majority, we mean something like 98-99% of the population mostly just copy what others do. There is certainly nothing wrong with this -- it is what makes humans so hypersocial -- but this does have implications for the contemporary work place.

If we are currently in a creative economy, this suggests that most of the work being done is going to be done by 1-2% of the entire population. And perhaps not even that many, since there are bound to be a high percentage of those people who are academics or autistic (and thus have a hard time holding down a job) or artists (or all of the above). So businesses are really looking at a much smaller percentage of the population who are going to be creative or innovative. This would suggest that they ought to be more open to tolerating the quirks of the creatives they need to succeed.

Think about it. To be creative or innovative, you have to challenge the way things are typically done. Most people hate that. This is why the most successful innovations have appeared to be mere slight changes in the way things are already done. Movies initially were filmed plays. Movie makers took something people were familiar with -- plays -- and filmed them. Once people were used to that, film makers could gradually turn films into what we now enjoy. And still, most movies still have play-like elements. And cinemas still look like theaters.

A firm full of innovators would likely fail. You need people who are just going to do what they are told all the time to do the day-to-day work and to keep the innovators from running off the rails with their new ideas. You want innovators working on the latest technology, not in the accounting department (innovators in the accounting department will get themselves, if not the entire company, in real trouble). But you have to expect your innovators to be different in their behaviors (such as being less social) from the vast majority of your employees.

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