Masterful Innovation: The art of “guru killing”

Have Warren Buffett, and Bill and Melissa Gates found bliss by turning to philanthropy? Being unimaginably rich they would barely notice the dip in their funds from many millions judiciously scattered across good causes. A painless way to assuage accumulated guilt occasioned by the collateral damage of cutthroat conquests? Does enlightened (as opposed to narrow) self-interest give us a bigger buzz than pioneering knee-capping breakthrough business innovation, or can the two create a contented synergy?

These questions arose as we mused over our client’s perplexing encounter at what had been a much-anticipated talk by a globetrotting innovation guru touting an optimists’ tour of the future.

The self-appointed sage in our office, Megan, ventured that any business, leadership, academic, spiritual and thought-leader gurus can give us a real BLAST (she embarrassed herself here). They are brilliant entertainers, stimulating storytellers and ambassadors of opulent optimism. Companies get hooked because they are under pressure, in a hurry, frustrated or lost. We can be seduced by the allure of the candy-coated promise, and what seems to be the “answer”. Dangers abound. People can get overly attached instead of remaining detached. So we plotted a guru MAP to guide contemplation about when and whether to accept guru guidance: There are Masters, Apprentices and well-promoted Pretenders.

Megan, herself a one-time explorer of spiritual domains, pointed out that Steve Jobs spent time with spiritual gurus in India when he was young, and ended up as a business Master who was too focused on making technology a beautiful thing for people to spend time on guru-tours. (This led to an excursion into related killing fields – the cannibalisation of products, practices and people at corporate innovators Apple, BP and News Corp. Our transcript was promptly quarantined for closer scrutiny by our beloved publisher/editor.)

The main risk with innovation gurus is that like the Pied Piper, they can entrance the unwary by sizzling the positives while bypassing (knowingly or unknowingly) the realities of resistance to change, power players and short-sighted stakeholders.

On our guru MAP, Masters are best at bridging the knowing/doing gap and keeping it bridged. Founded in 1983 and best known for QuickBooks, financial software gazelle Intuit turned over $US3.9 billion in 2011. Founder Scott Cook and his leadership team have been bridging the gap masterfully for two decades.

The pretenders offer brightly shimmering painted bridges that conceal a treacherous patchwork of gaps. The disciplined way is, after enjoying the business guru’s magical mystical tour, to step back, assess, engage and/or assassinate them with as much rigor as one would any supplier.

There being no better thing than a proven good theory, the best academic gurus practice praxis.

One such practitioner is US Professor Martin Seligman, who coined the term “learned optimism”. Thirty years ago Seligman and colleague Christopher Peterson commenced some scholarly innovation. They set out to create a positive counterpart to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. While the manual focused on what can go wrong in peoples’ heads, they also focused on how to make things wonderfully right. They looked across cultures and millennia and distilled a list of virtues that have been highly valued from ancient China and India, through Greece and Rome, to contemporary Western cultures.* Seligman then translated the new knowledge into real world programs. One of these commenced four years ago at Geelong Grammar School and is now an integral part of the school’s culture and teaching philosophy, with big benefits for both staff and students.**

Seligman’s work crosses the business, leadership, academic, spiritual and thought-leader boundaries, and makes him a Master. He offers five pointers for the path to the PERMA-nently good life (please pardon his pun):

  • Positive emotion: tuneable by writing down every day three things that went well and why.
  • Engagement: tuneable by operating from one’s strongest strength on any given task.
  • Relationships: tuneable, but not in a way that can be explained briefly.
  • Meaning: belonging to and serving something bigger than one’s self.
  • Achievement: remembering that determination counts for more than IQ.

We could not pinpoint Bill, Melissa and Warren’s PERMA quotients, but had no doubt that they were desirably high. Young Potter, our workplace pragmatist, bemoaned his limited ability to donate to charity. Megan, feeling unusually kind, was quick to reassure him that Zen, the source of the wisdom of killing guru’s (originally the Buddha) that you meet on the road, also implored that we should enjoy the journey as well as the arriving.

* The virtues, or character strengths, are wisdom/knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. Our material on Seligman is from here.

** For more on learned optimism click here.

And if you are curious, here is the story of our client’s guru encounter…

A networker with enough memberships to circle six degrees of separation, our client had scored a seat at a public talk by innovation guru Mark Stevenson. Billed as a multitalented expert on institutional innovation, cryptologist, agricultural scientist, environmentalist, futurologist and comedian, Mark was careering around Australia and the world promoting his book An Optimist’s Tour of the Future.

Our client was perplexed. His discomfort arose when, on a high from the guru’s high octane mixture of comedy, optimism and breakthrough success stories, he heard Mark dismiss a question from the audience. The question was about principles guiding Mark’s interventions to shape institutional innovation. Mark said that what really matters is getting people excited, enthused and into action.

Our client, two years into an innovation culture transformation was flabbergasted. Was it ever that simple? Does the mere presence of the management guru do the job? We had a glimpse of the answer when we found his book shelved not under management/innovation, but popular science. It’s an entertaining travelogue across the ideas of how leading technology thinkers.


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