Powers of Observation

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

David A. Owens is a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Graduate School of Business, and his whole gestalt is about helping companies make innovative products and manage themselves successfully.

His book, Creative People Must Be Stopped, is a field guide to what goes wrong or gets in the way of progress. The subtitle is “6 Ways We Kill Innovation (Without Even Trying)” but he actually enumerates many more ways good intentions go off the tracks. His six broad types of “constraints” are: group, technological, individual, societal, organizational, and industry-based.

Many of the problems Owens identifies and the solutions he poses are from the land of common sense; for example, in brainstorming, it is best to defer judgment, encourage wild ideas, build on the ideas of others, and stay focused on the topic. But it is very useful to have the basics outlined between two hard covers. A book like this can serve as a neutral common ground to help disparate parties grope past the hurdles between them.

The book made me think about all the weird and bad mojo I’ve seen go down in various work places. I once worked at a magazine that was owned by an enormous bank. Edicts from some far off place periodically directed our pencils, but there was no face ever attached, no rationale, no follow through on results from enforced change. We had a happy time at that magazine as long as we could fly under the radar, which we tried to do all the time — I can’t imagine that was the corporate objective.

I’ve seen two small companies crash into even littler pieces when one person in authority took down another person in authority but wasn’t adequate to the task or willing to take the voided place of the one ousted. The worst communal task I was ever involved in was on a volunteer project for my childrens’ K-8 school. The total lack of professionalism made fertile ground for an incompetent person to run amok and practically wreck the whole endeavor. I desperately wanted someone like David Owens to step in and establish accountability in that case.

There is another book lurking in the shadow of this one, and Owens is just the person to write it. Observing the way we often forget that “our innovation activities ultimately take place within the natural environment,” and further reflecting that “all forms of life are hard to sustain relative to the ease with which they can be damaged and destroyed,” Owens comes close to confronting but doesn’t quite name our biggest failure to innovate. That’s right, the biodiversity crisis, and the way we’ve built human systems up by eroding our very own sustenance. Owens has a philosophical, broad bent, and he references seminal books like Why Things Bite Back by Edward Tenner and Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus. He lists The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn, in the recommended reading on his website.

Professor Owens, please take all the management lessons you have learned and help us apply them to righting the flow charts that govern the biggest corporate entity of them all: Earth.

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