Open brainstorming is the way to go

Prof Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School offers some advice on the future for Ireland’s economy


Ireland needs to reduce its dependency on foreign direct investment and encourage more home-grown entrepreneurs and innovators. It should also look to attract more European entrepreneurs by creating a climate for entrepreneurship here. That’s the message from leading management thinker and author Prof Rosabeth Moss Kanter from Harvard Business School.

Speaking to The Irish Times in advance of her appearance at the IBEC HR Leadership Summit later this week, Prof Kanter said: “Companies want to be in places where the new knowledge is being created. Ireland should be doing a lot more with its promising entrepreneurs. With multinationals, you don’t want to be just the intermediary place between the home country and the emerging markets because you will lose them over time. You want to be the place where they have to be over time because there are always new things developing.”

While acknowledging the important role multinationals have played in developing Ireland’s economy, she said that there was also a weariness about some of these corporations and working there “was not always the best career path”. Many of the current crop of world-leading IT companies had started in college dorms and there was no reason why Ireland should not be replicating this phenomenon.

Innovation climate
On a broader level, she said that many of the problems affecting corporations around the world can be put down to poor leadership and not creating a climate for innovation. A “mind-set of passivity” was often the problem, she observes.

“You need good leadership to encourage people to come forward and there needs to be open brainstorming. You shouldn’t look for magic bullet solutions to problems. You should look instead for small wins, which should be applauded and then you encourage people to try something bigger. The bias should always be for action – any action is better than none,” she said.

Innovation can be viewed simply as being about “putting new ideas into use” but it shouldn’t be too narrowly focussed.

Innovation isn’t just about eureka moments, it’s about doing things better, not just in terms of products but processes and relationships. It’s also not something that should be confined to discreet innovation styled silos within organisations, such as R&D and product development departments, as innovation can come from any part of the organisation, she explains.

“A culture of innovation means that you have lots of people experimenting. There are lots of small changes happening and sometimes those small changes lead to big successes. Small changes also create a culture where people are more receptive to bigger changes.”

Examples of failure
When researching the effects of innovation efforts, Prof Kanter said that when she asked innovation leaders for examples of failure, many struggled to come with examples. “It wasn’t simply a case of ego. Failure depends on what point you give up or whether what you worked on can be remodelled into something that is more successful than what you started out with.”

The process of innovation is almost invariably a positive one as it generally creates a reservoir of knowledge that can be recycled even if early initiatives were not successful, she adds.

She is a big fan of rapid prototyping.

“I’m all for radical innovation but you go about conservatively,” she says, explaining that companies should push their new products and services out to a sample of the market, get quick reactions, then respond appropriately by changing the formula, if necessary, based on how customers react or trying something completely different if it is simply not working.

She remains an optimist and noting the sluggishness of the western economic bloc feels nonetheless that there are huge opportunities in the world, especially for those who focus on emerging markets, where there are enormous needs for products and services.

Gender gap
Now 70, Kanter has seen many changes in the world of management and says that things have generally improved.

Her 1977 book Men and Women of the Corporation, based on a five-year study, is regarded as a seminal book on corporate power and exposed the culture of gender inequality rife in the corporate world in that era.

It’s a theme she returns to from time to time. In a Harvard Business Review blog she wonders if we would have had quite the same devastating financial crisis five years ago if Lehman Bros had been Lehman Sisters,

Would closing the gender gap to increase the number of women financial leaders improve financial institutions and prevent further damage to the global financial system?

She is a cautious advocate of this notion, noting that good stereotypes of women can be just as confining and inaccurate as bad stereotypes and increasing numbers of women won’t by itself change institutions in itself.

“But getting more women on the inside with greater power and influence could be a useful step. When elites become more diverse, certain crony strangle-hoods are loosened,” she notes.