September 2015

Why unoriginality is the key to innovation

I have not had an original thought.

While I run the risk of invoking witty criticism, I think this statement is true for all of us.  Paradoxically it offers an important insight into how we shape progress and lead significant and innovative change.

Let me explain.

The Western culture of individualism and the ‘healthy ego’ leads us to celebrate originality.  Our sense of identity and self-worth can be strongly linked to how I identify the contribution I make or how others perceive my unique legacy .  Indeed, the quality of my intellect and reasoning are strong predictors of the level of respect I will command in the business world – and what better way to demonstrate that than with truly original thought?

Yet our deepest thoughts were probably already considered by Aristotle or a Mesopotamian sage many centuries ago. Just not in our context, nor with our scientific knowledge or language.  This is why we can read ancient texts and be inspired and why Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is still labelled a best-seller after 2000 years!

Further, all over the world people are having the same insights as you and me concurrently. There seems to be a synchronicity shaped by our context.  Think of Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray who were separately and concurrently developing the telephone and filed for patents on the very same day[1].

A current example is the corporate leadership buzz around ‘mindfulness’.  Our technologically savvy and over-stimulated world is creating a hunger for inner peace. This wisdom has been part of the tradition of every great faith for centuries.  Now thousands of people around the world are firmly proclaiming the importance of meditation in business, social and religious contexts.  Each person’s insight is important in addressing a real issue and they are neither original nor unique.

Hmmm.  This starts to sound like heresy and what does this have to do with innovation?  After all individualism has been essential to the development of capitalism and the overwhelming growth in standards of living.  Our belief in meritocracy, human rights, democracy are all linked to individualism.

The first part of the answer lies in how powerfully and quickly we can effect change when we put ego aside and tap into the combined power of our collective wisdom and insights.  It’s there to be shared just as soon as we open our minds, hearts and will[2] and listen before we freely offer our own insights.  Then we achieve the seemingly impossible.

Take the stunning breakthroughs with prosthetic technologies.  Modern warfare (mines / IEDs) leaves more people alive but maimed.  The US Government made significant funding available to pioneer sophisticated options for people needing prosthetic limbs.  The requirement though was that learnings were to be shared – an open protocol was to be created.  The speed of progress has been breath-taking.  And although specific people are now patenting their own commercially lucrative variations, the collaborative and open sharing was a massive catalyst to what has occurred.  If you haven’t been following this one (and I can understand it may not be on your radar) check out IEEE / Spectrum.[3]  We are at a point where in a few short years prosthetic arms have evolved from having limited utility to now being able to handle delicate tasks and communicate sensation.  Imagine the joy of being able to hug your child, your spouse once more….

How much more quickly might we have developed communication technology had Bell and Gray openly shared their learnings and worked together, rather than engaging in a race to the patent office?  What other technological breakthroughs might be just around the corner?

The second part of the answer is that we may have no choice.  Leaders I work with keep encountering the same insight:  the opportunities they are really excited about and the complex challenges that they see go way beyond traditional concepts of business.  Hierarchical and individualistic approaches to leadership are insufficient to the task.  They won’t work.

Take the exemplary success of Unilever in moving to a genuine position of sustainability. They began by throwing out conventional wisdom around making quarterly forecasts to market analysts as this was driving short-termism. Instead, the people at Unilever have worked closely with their entire ecosystem of suppliers, customers and communities to think longer term about transforming the business.  They have moved a long way towards their goal of doubling revenues while enacting their three-point sustainability plan: to help more than a billion people improve their health and wellbeing, to halve the environmental footprint of their products, and to source 100% of agricultural raw materials sustainably.  Read any of the interviews with Paul Polman for an insight into his philosophy and approach.[4]  He is a man who radiates pride in what he and his team have collectively achieved.

There is excellent work being done in developing new leadership models. Two in particular are Otto Scharmer and the ‘Presencing Institute’ based out of MIT and Ron Heifetz and Martin Linsky’s work on Adaptive Leadership at Harvard. These present models of co-creative and future focused leadership versus authority-based and historically-grounded leadership.   I am sure there are others you know of and value– I would love to hear about them.

However, discussions about moving towards collaborative styles of leadership have been happening for decades.  So something is getting in the way of turning talk into action in all but a few exemplary instances.

I have worked for years with leaders who honestly desired to become ‘more collaborative’.  The biggest impediments they had to overcome were perceived threats to identity, status and sense of control…  To put it bluntly threats to people’s egos. “How can I trust you to understand my world, my priorities and to execute things to my standards or with my quality of vision?  Am I to share the glory?? After all, who remembers Elisha Gray?”

This happens while we operate according to a sense of purpose or meaning which focuses on our individual achievement.

Fulfilling an individual’s ambitions is not leadership – and certainly not the leadership we need right now. As leaders we are called think bigger and wider than we ever have before.

The paradigm for businesses is changing from “profit is good” to a recognition that “a business cannot thrive in a community that fails”. [5] Indeed there is much convincing commentary that our consumption- growth based business models are broken: we already consume about 1.5 times what the planet can sustainably produce.[6]

The function of leadership at Unilver involved creating space where ego can be put to one side among people who might believe they have nothing in common and indeed are in competition, building space for thoughtful and assertive challenge and deep, appreciative listening and learning.  Leading means to become a channel for what needs to emerge, the future that needs to be created[7].  The solutions created at Unilver look very different to what any individual might have conceived and deliver a win/win/win.  That is something to be rightly proud of.

In summary, if you know you are wedded to the concept of ‘your idea’ or are motivated by recognition of the part you play, you are stopping yourself from leading in a way that matters, a way that is urgently needed.  The invitation is to step beyond this and lead something larger than yourself, knowing that you won’t be doing this on your own.  The world is waiting.


Ruth McCance is an Executive Confidante, Coach and Faciliator with over 20 years’ experience in guiding people on their leadership journey, as they navigate change for themselves and their organisations. Beginning on the basis that we lead through the quality of our relationships, she will help you develop a ‘symphonised’ way of leading which harnesses not just your own power but the power of those around you.   

Ruth’s vision is of a world where the most powerful organisations are guided by people who lead through difference, not despite difference, leaving a legacy of amazing achievements by establishing deeply connected human networks.



[2] Otto Scharmer ‘Leading from the Emerging Future’  various citations incl. Introduction and Chapter 8 available at – though I recommend the whole book.


[4] [4] Here’s a recent article

[5] Paul Polman, CEO Unilever .  For a fuller outline of Polman’s position see any of the many articles posted.  Here’s a recent one


[7] These concepts are beautifully explored in Otto Scharmer’s book Leading from the Emerging Future, which also contains some moving and inspiring case studies of transformations happening around the world.