Heroes with no names

Mulitple ideas

People often make fun of me when I associate the name of a particular person with a specific idea in a workshop setting. If I say something like “remember John’s suggestion that…,” I often see embarrassed smiles on people’s faces that tell me “we don’t do this kind of thing around here.” They probably attribute some weird cult-of-personality tendency to me, or at worst assume I am a sycophant seeking some favor from John.

I’m particularly grieved by this perception, because nothing is more fun to me than watching people connect around interesting ideas, and giving them credit for participating in such a creative network feels like the most natural thing. In fact, I must confess I tag people in my brain with their ideas, in such a way that I can rapidly call a large number of people by name simply by remembering what they contributed in the early stages of a workshop (“Oh yeah, the person who said this very intelligent thing”). It’s not a party trick: I derive great personal energy from watching smart minds connecting around a novel idea.

When that happens, it’s as if the whole room lights up. The wavering bulb of the initial idea becomes a city of light, powered by the human grid that did not exist a minute earlier. I feel it in my flesh and bones, and immediately get a “what a privilege to be here at this moment” feeling.

As I often find myself in the role of facilitator at innovation meetings, I’ve learned that being a chronicler of such meetings is an essential component of co-creation. Moments of innovation, like historical moments, warrant recording who was there and who said what. Identifying innovation protagonists and describing their exploits feel as important to me as knowing that Hannibal is the guy who crossed the Alps with the elephants, or Rommel is the WWII German general who figured out fighting in a desert is like fighting on the sea. Giving people credit for their role in those moments is also a way of keeping them engaged. We can all use a bit of recognition to keep us marching on the innovation road when all conspires to get us sidetracked with operational stuff.

Of course, I used to think ideas were paramount, and the process through which human brains connect around them anecdotal. This Cartesian illusion that good ideas will emerge independently of the people who initiated them is still quite prevalent in many organizations. The way the President of the United States just invited ideas from experts to address the job creation issue in the US testifies to the same belief that a few powerful ideas will come along that make a difference. He clearly views the role of government as identifying those ideas through an analytical process, then funding them. If he called me for advice, I’d suggest he’d be better served launching a grassroots, country-wide process of co-creation on the issue, and watch a thousand accidental heroes emerge from it. His role would be to give names to those people, not exert analytical brilliance on what ideas to pursue.

Now that I think of it, I hope he doesn’t call. He’d probably think my suggestion does not even rise to the level of being a bad idea.

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