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Don’t kill the red monkeys

Jef Staes

Jef Staes

Organisations must protect red monkeys – disruptive business ideas – in order to flourish, author and TEDx speaker Jef Staes tells the Times of Malta.

The word ‘innovation’ is slapped – like the proverbial ‘discount’ sticker – on an organisation’s mission, vision, adverts and catalogues. It’s the new-and-improved of management talk and the top item on every boardroom whiteboard.

But does every organisation have the right structure that allows innovation to spark and flourish?

For Belgian author and four-time TEDx speaker Jef Staes, not every organisation has the right order to fuel innovation.

“I like top-down structures and hierarchies,” he says.

“Maybe this is strange, because everyone wants to get rid of top-down structures and hierarchies. I really believe we must reinvent the role of executives and managers in an organisation.

“Until two decades ago, executives and managers were very smart operation managers and experts who were able to direct an organisation in a certain direction, based on their technical competences. They used objectives and function descriptions to create the ‘perfect’ operation organisation. This created top-down order and made clear who had the power to decide.”

Staes admits that this structure would not work in today’s organisations.

“It’s impossible for executives and managers to be the most technical competent people in an organisation. But order is still imperative. Today we need executives who can create a passionate mission for the organisation. The mission must be so challenging that employees really want to innovate in a certain direction, in the groove with the mission. The mission must go beyond the borders of the organisation, so customers and partners want to participate in open business innovation.

“In other words, there is a new need for top-down. Creating focus, a passion to go for disruptive innovation. If executives want to succeed in their mission, they will need a completely different management style and a dynamic hierarchical structure where managers come and go and are able to do magic with changing teams of experts. The reason why such organisations are hard to find is easy – the current generation of executives and managers don’t have the needed passion and talents to be these new executives or managers.”

The role of leader is rather complex in a modern organisation, especially for one that seeks innovation. Moreover, it is a chicken-and-egg scenario – does a business achieve innovation through its leader’s vision, or does a leader’s vision encourage innovation in a business?

“For me, an organisation that doesn’t have a mission and a vision that encourages innovation will die,” Staes says.

“The mission and vision should bring passion and focus to an organisation. For me, an organisation without focus is not really an organisation. So maybe it is not an ‘or’ question. You need both – ‘through’ gives focus and ‘encourage’ gives passion.”

In his book My Organisation is a Jungle, Staes proposes the idea of the ‘red monkey’. How does this analogy work?

“A ‘red monkey’ is a metaphor for a disruptive business idea – something that can disrupt the balance in an organisation. For instance, the idea of talking movies was a red monkey for the movie industry when they were earning a lot of money with silent movies. The talking movies killed the silent movies and a lot of silent actors and people earning money with silent movies.

“That’s why I called a disruptive idea a red monkey. When you drop a red monkey in a jungle, it will be killed. It is too disruptive. For this reason, executives have to embrace red monkey innovation management. But to get disruptive red monkeys they must go for a challenging mission and protect the red monkeys. Without this an organisation will not have a future in these chaotic times. This mechanism is not present in current organisations. They don’t have the courage to destroy their own portfolio. The are just waiting as sitting ducks until someone else can kill their organisation.”

Staes believes that everyone can be innovative.

“If people can go to school and learn, with passion for their talents, I really believe everybody can be innovative. But schools were not created to find and develop the talents and passions of people. They were created to earn a degree, based on discipline and intelligence. This is not the way to nurture learning and innovation. Therefore, too many people work as a ‘sheep’. They get a diploma to able to work as a sheep in a function description. The only thing education and organisations did is kill the innovative potential of people.

“Yes every individual can be naturally innovative if you give their passion for their talents a chance. We have to reinvent learning and working.”

Author and keynote speaker Jef Staes is an authority on learning processes and innovative organisations. He is a four-time TEDx speaker and the author of the bestselling book My Organisation is a Jungle. He spoke at the Malta Innovation Summit.

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