I spoke to Drake Baer, who is a contributing writer at Fast Company and co-author of the upcoming book “Everything Connects: How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation, and Sustainability“. At Fast Company, Baer covers the intersection of psychology and work. He interviews the foremost minds in business for a living, including Clay Christensen, Nate Silver and Nassim Taleb. He also has a special interest in companies and bands on the brink of breaking big and the methods by which they do so. For more information on Baer, you can follow him on Twitter @drake_baer.
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In this interview, he talks about why companies struggle with innovation, why leaders become irrelevant when they aren’t thinking forward, which companies are able to create sustainable innovation, sources of creativity and his career advice.
Why do you think a lot of companies struggle with innovation?
Trying to describe why companies struggle with innovation is like trying to capture why the economy can’t get better, Congress won’t do anything, and why cities can’t solve crime: Innovation and its blocks are as myriad as they are opaque, as personal as they are technical, as simple as they complex.
That said, from what I can tell, our innovation issues come from an illiteracy regarding how volatility shapes our personal, relational, and organizational lives.
What happens when leaders get too comfortable with their current way of doing business?
They become irrelevant at best, hindrances to their companies at worse, see “stack ranking.” The problem, as its been framed to me, is that we live in an era governed by responsiveness, rather than efficiency. So if a leader’s comfort zone lies within an efficiency model, you have a mismatch with the hurly-burly metabolism of work today.
Can you name some companies, and their leaders, who are able to sustain innovation despite economic changes?
I interviewed Beth Comstock at the IdeaFestival in Louisville, Kentucky, and was struck by her prescience: she’s one clue as to why GE is the only company from the original Dow Jones that’s still with us. As far as execs I’ve talked to personally, I was similarly impressed by Bill McDermott, the CEO of SAP, and Adam Pisoni, the CTO of Yammer, whose engineering methodology we examine in Everything Connects.
What are some sources of creativity that employees and their leaders tend to avoid?
Japanese psychologists have started to prescribe shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, to people who’ve sunk into depression, which is a beautiful illustration of how nature is medicine. Since it’s a stabilizing force, we can infer that it allows for bolder thinking.
We also tend to disregard the power of literature, which leaves a ton of empathy on the table. A really good novel is kind of like a flight simulator: it lets you demo another perspective without actually taking the risk firsthand.
Lastly, brokering network clusters is one of the most immediate ways to combine old ideas into knew ones: if you act as a bridge between cliques of people, you’ll absorb the expertise within each.
What are your top three career tips?
1. Opportunities come attached to people: you need somebody to let you in.
2. Hustle is the continued courting of serendipity: lucky people know how to interact with chance.
3. No one really knows what they’re talking about: The patterns of success are obscured, if not opaque.
Dan Schawbel is a workplace speaker and the New York Times best-selling author of Promote Yourself. Subscribe to his free monthly newsletter for more career tips.
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