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It Takes All Sorts

Successful innovation companies, such as IDEO, have long valued diversity in the workplace, and the creative sparks that fly from the interaction between different personalities and perspectives. And recent research on innovation has showed that a climate of constructive criticism is more beneficial than one of artificial positivity.

History shows that many companies (including market research agencies) focus on recruiting people who “fit in” to their company culture, and it’s a human trait to be more comfortable with people who have similar personalities and points of view (“birds of a feather flock together”). While this strategy is low risk, it can also result in bland conformity. Diversity shouldn’t just be for innovation, and is a crucial element of any successful business.

From the myths of the past to the Hollywood blockbusters of today, all great stories work because the hero is surrounded by a cast of supporting characters each playing an important role in helping the hero to win the treasure of success, and the same is true in any business story. There are several common archetypes that every business needs.

There is always a boss (The Ruler) who leads and directs the action. Bosses help give structure and stability to any business, and bring out the best in everyone. Bosses can come in many flavours, from the calmly confident to the frenetically energetic. Successful bosses give centre stage to others, rise to the toughest challenges and have a large toolbox from which they can improvise the right solution to any problem.

But can everyone be a leader? The publication of Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain last year highlighted the importance of the quieter people within a business (who often have the best ideas). Similarly, Dan Pink has shown in To Sell Is Human that extraverts are better at talking than at selling, and the most successful people possess a mixture of skills and, are not necessarily the most outgoing despite the persistent belief in this.

And although a boss creates a company’s culture, s/he doesn’t have to surround themselves with clones and sycophants. Many of the greatest business mistakes have been perpetrated in a climate where noone was prepared to question the Emperor’s new clothes. Surrounding yourself with different opinions may be less comfortable, but more rewarding.

Many bosses are great at directing their business, while not necessarily being an expert in the business of their business – for example, managing directors may be better at managing people than at designing research. Most businesses need experts (The Guru), whose expertise may come in many forms including industry knowledge. methodological expertise or operational experience.

Every business also needs those who can help everyone to connect and feel part of the team – sometimes they are supportive and caring (The Caregiver), sometimes the “team player” (The Everyman) and sometimes the person who is everyone’s confidante and friend (The Seducer).

To complement those who build the team, there is always a need for those who get things done, often with less interest in the needs of the team and a greater sense of independence (e.g., salespeople and innovators).

Innovators and creatives are arguably the most important business personality in the early twenty-first century (The Artist archtetype). Creativity and self-expression come more easily in some industries and organizations than others, although those companies that ignore the need for change are often left dead in the wake of those (usually smaller and more agile) companies that adapt more quickly. Just look at Blackberry, Nokia or Kodak to see how quickly the world can change.

The market research industry has sometimes been quick to adopt new technologies (quicker than many clients), although slower to adopt broader changes in thinking – so while paper has evolved to telephone and then online, the questions being asked have not changed despite new discoveries in the behavioural and social sciences. Similarly, the business model of multinational research companies is being challenged as sample access costs drop through the floor.  Is some creative thinking required?

It’s worth mentioning one final character: The Rebel. Every business needs at least one maverick, to keep everyone honest and to make sure that decisions are properly challenged. The culture of “yes” is very pervasive in some companies, and deeply dangerous as many recent examples highlight.

There is an apocryphal tale of the engineering department of Motorola squashing the idea for a larger touchscreen phone because “customers want a small phone and will never put up with a shorter battery life”. They suffered from the common disease of only seeing the world from the viewpoint of their own company and its business model and internal capabilities. If you want to avoid the Motorola trap, then value diversity over conformity and encourage everyone in your company to be prepared to “think different”. The most successful businesses such as Apple and Pixar encourage differences of opinion and debate.

After all, it takes allsorts to make a sweet success.

[This article was first published in Asia Research Magazine Q1, 2014]

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