Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

The Genius In All Of Us

I recently read David Shenk's piece at BBC News on the subject of skills development. If you're not familiar with his work, his book The Genius In All Of Us summarizes research indicating that a person's intelligences (and we have many) are more a function of environment and practice than most of us think.

"…everything about us — our personalities, our intelligence, our abilities — are actually determined by the lives we lead. The very notion of 'innate' no longer holds together."
I find this astounding, and I think it challenges the way most companies hire, assign, promote, compensate, and discipline employees. Read the following description of brain research conducted on London taxi drivers:
"…spatial tasks were actively changing cabbies' brains. This was perfectly consistent with studies of violinists, Braille readers, meditation practitioners, and recovering stroke victims. Our brains adapt in response to the demands we put on them."
When we think of an innovative business culture, we usually mean a culture that identifies, encourages, and supports potential innovators. Many of the poster children for innovation — Motorola, Eastman Kodak, General Electric — succeeded with cultures like that.

But this new research implies that we're missing an opportunity to find and use a much larger pool of innovators — people who don't even know they are innovators until they start to live in more challenging work environments.
"It would be folly to suggest that anyone can literally do or become anything. But the new science tells us that it's equally foolish to think that mediocrity is built into most of us."
Lean and other strategies for continuous process improvement are steps in the right direction. But they focus narrowly, in my opinion, on improvement not innovation. Real innovation is not about polishing the apple, it's about finding the pear, the mango, and the tomato.

The key to a truly innovative workplace is setting up the work, itself, as a continuing apprenticeship, with expert and novice hands joining together as a matter of policy to meet all work challenges and get all work done.

We don't do that today. In the typical workplace, you are hired for what you've proven you can do, and assigned the job of continuing to do it. The company relies on your narrow expertise in your area, but makes no use of your perspective, abilities, or potential in any other areas. Though this approach has short-term efficiencies, it shortchanges the future.

In contrast, the enduring path to business success lies in a company culture that recognizes pervasive and continual on-the-job collaborative staff development as its real competitive advantage. The practical demands on workers of such a culture lead them to innovate as surely as a babies navigating their complex world learn to walk and talk (and later, ride motorcycles).

P.S. You'll love the motorcycles!

BBC News Article

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