becoming whale

Stewart: 'There was a problem with us not being able to pick an outcome.'

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick 'is not like the little cat or dog owned by an elderly woman who honors and cherishes it'. He is no ordinary whale. In the same vein, Project Red Stripe's big idea, whatever it was to be, was not like the kind of idea that you have in the bath.

Of course, it could have been an idea that you have in the bath. But it wasn't, because it quickly acquired a weight and a symbolism and a significance that transformed it into something quite other. So that having it in the bath would have been as improbable as having Moby-Dick in the bath.

Moby-Dick was no ordinary whale but one that
'bypasse[d] the pack or the school'; less an animal than an event in its own right and one whose character and fleshiness are partly an emergent property of Ahab's relationship with the whale. Another emergent property (or side-effect as we used to say) of that relationship was that the captain ceased to be just Ahab. Choosing to hunt Moby-Dick 'in a choosing that exceeds him and comes from elsewhere', Ahab is eventually overtaken by his preoccupation with the beast. He can be seen as 'becoming-whale'. So Red Stripe's idea, whatever it was to be, was no ordinary idea. And the team can be seen as becoming-idea.

Taking the notion of Ahab-becoming-whale one step further, we could also imagine that, in the course of Ahab's struggle with it, the whale somehow changes. Perhaps Moby-Dick is himself becoming-more-than-whale. He is becoming-Ahab. So the idea can be seen as becoming-the-team.

In any case, a sense of the idea (though not the idea itself) was there in Mike Seery's head nine months before the project began when he proposed an internal innovation team to the Internet Strategy Group, of which he was a member.

Though he tried to talk it away - 'the key measure of success is not the idea itself, but that The Economist Group wants to run this innovation process again' - it continued to preoccupy him. The idea of an idea. 'It should be something that we couldn't otherwise have come up with.' It also preoccupied the team from the outset. Where would they find it? Would they know it when they saw it? Would they catch it? Would they be good enough for it? Would it be good enough for them? Would it be cool enough? Would they deserve it? If they found it, would other people recognise it? Would someone else steal it once they'd found it?

As Mike
said later about the idea-gathering process: the time each team member had read through all of the ideas and the
rush of new submissions had turned into a trickle, we knew that we still lacked
the big idea. And we were already nearly two months into the project.

To me it seems that this whale-of-an-idea was sometimes too much for the team. Too much for any team. They tried to bring it back down to size by playing with it: 'Let's divert the Thames through Lichfield', 'Let's make the world square'. But still it became the elephant in the room, to mix gargantuan mammal metaphors. And the team found themselves becoming-whale-of-an-idea-in-the-room. Then they had two ideas. Which one should they choose? Had they chosen the right idea? Then the idea was altered. Was it still good enough? Then it was changed altogether. As time ran out there was an awful dread that they had missed their chance. And, from the moment that they decided to look externally for their idea, there was a pervading sense that the idea lived 'out there'. Which meant, in turn, that the team would not be the authors or creators or owners of the idea.

In the end, it's a serious responsibility being invited to change the world. The whale-of-an-idea is an onerous beastie, and cetanthropy is an onerous business.


'Thinking big' is obviously necessary for a major innovation project, especially as it's notoriously difficult to get people to think beyond the confines of their current reality. But giving people the freedom to try and change the world may leave them a little dazed by the enormity of what they might be able to achieve.

Barnes & Noble
Square World: Funny Stuff Is All Around

1 comment:

Brendan Dunphy said...

How much I identify with ‘Becoming Whale’, the fist chapter Big idea dilemma! This is a frequent problem that often derails proactive innovation initiatives at the first junction. It is not clear to me if you used any external facilitation, participants or inputs though I guess subsequent chapters will tell.

In my experience (I have been facilitating such programs for many years), what tends to happen is that all the focus and energy is on the OUTPUT (the BIG idea) and almost none on the INPUTS necessary to conceive BIG ideas. This is rather like wanting to create a tasty meal for a dinner party but not wanting to think about a RECIPE or INGREDIENTS, let alone shop for them or learn how to combine them. As a frequent traveller I am destined to return home late at night to stare into an almost empty refrigerator and ponder what tasty meal I can concoct from an egg, a gherkin and orange juice; no matter how creative I feel, the options are limited. If we want to change the outcome we have to change the inputs – period!

In the IT world there is an expression, GiGO – Garbage IN Garbage OUT – and though maybe this is a bit extreme it does point to the nature of the problem we face in innovating - we need to seek much greater DIVERSITY of INPUTS if we are to arrive at NOVEL or original OUTPUTS. Without this we are destined to arrive at either un compelling or unviable outcomes as the combinations are limited, even with several alternative combinatorial PROCESSES (anyone for steamed egg on a bed of grated gherkin poached in orange juice?).

The second point concerns the reluctance to frame a PROBLEM or CHALLENGE in sufficient detail to enable a new idea to appear. Einstein supposedly said that given an hour he would spend 55 minutes understanding the problem and 5 minutes developing a solution. There is a great reluctance to do this as we mistakenly think it LIMITS rather than ENABLES innovation and that we need SPACE and FREEDOM to innovate rather than data and deep INSIGHTS. Without a sufficiently framed problem we have far too much SPACE to spin our wheels ad no way to evaluate our ideas.

Innovation suffers from many myths that we need to overcome if we are to innovate at a more sustainable level and one that is capable of solving the challenges of our day. We confuse ideas and innovation, over-valuing ideas and under valuing innovation. We believe constraints and process limit creativity rather than enable it and we believe innovation is more art than science, inspiration rather than perspiration. The list is a much longer one and I will not continue it here but rather thank you in advance for sharing your insights and hoping that we can all learn a little more from your experience – I know I will! Brenda at