Originally Published in Fair Value
President Ronald Reagan, Speaking after talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik summit in 1986, infamously said that what was most needed between the superpowers was “Trust… [adding, after a dramatic pause]… but verify!”
Trust but Verify
The apparent contradiction made headlines around the world, helping to foster an approach that led to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the removal of around 80 percent of the nuclear warheads in existence.This phrase is actually not Reagan’s at all, but an old Russian proverb that serves to illustrate that a counterintuitive tension is often the most effective way to break down those barriers that impede step-change progress. Its wisdom is now commonplace, aided by the growth of technology that gives confidence to more attitudes: “trust trading,” for example, is a standard practice among progressive retail partners; customs checks are made on random samples; we trust our people but verify their output…
How Trust but Verify Applies to Business
All of this is intended as a prompt to reflect on how we might apply similar thinking to our organizations. What, as business leaders, can we do to foster the relationships and environment that supports the creative progress we need? And how do we balance the need for innovation with the equally necessary reassurance that our actions are founded on more than a leap of faith?Fresh thinking is essential to progress. Without it, we stagnate, our horizons narrow, and our competitors overtake us. At a macro level, the impetus for change is essential for human flourishing-it’s no coincidence that when innovation dries up or is curtailed by dogma, we talk of “Dark Ages” or “closed societies.” History is littered with examples of the damage this causes, just as it also confirms the benefits of freethinking and the open society.We all know this, and yet the reality is that when it comes to our own circumstances, creative leaps can be scary and uncertain, evoking what the historian Robert Hughes brilliantly described as “the shock of the new.” His interest lay in the arts, but the same sequence of “disruption, resistance, and progress” is seen in the scientific and industrial revolutions that preceded our modern era. And today, the pattern continues, most obviously in the digital sphere, which has supercharged the speed and reach-but also the risks-of creative innovation.It is a mistake, however, to think of creativity purely in terms of inspirational genius. As James Dyson, the billionaire UK engineer and inventor, has pointed out-practical progress is seldom made in the manner of Archimedes in his bath or Isaac Newton under the apple tree. Rather, it’s an iterative journey that sharpens our notions and intuition through a process of trial, error, and adjustment. Dyson has filed over 4,000 patent applications, and yet he claims none of his ideas were truly unique. What? Made the difference is his commitment to the hard hours of testing and adjustment that irons out the flaws and solves problems in a piecemeal way.Dyson also argues that innovation flourishes most in an atmosphere of creative tension, where ideas are robustly and competitively challenged, often in partnerships or teams, in pursuit of a common goal. We see this pattern time and again in art and science: Picasso andBraque, Darwin and Wallace, Lennon and McCartney… The relevance for business leaders is that innovation works best when it’s integral to, and not isolated from, the day-to-day realities of the organization. Indeed, research has shown that transformation and development teams work most effectively and come up with the most productive ideas-when subject to the same rigorous critique and analysis as our everyday processes.
Ground Break Creativity Is Rare
Ground-breaking creativity is also a rare event-were it is not; then change would simply overwhelm us. The reality is that most great ideas take the form of an inspirational leap which is then refined through marginal gains that make the bigger difference. As an apt illustration, when Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high jump at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, he won by a mere 2cm, clearing 2.24m for gold-today, after universal adoption of and, critically, refinement to his groundbreaking technique-the world record stands at 2.45m.
Creativity Takes Work
These sorts of gains come not from pondering on the stars but from analyzing what works best, finding ways to improve on the idea, and being open to our failures. The writer Matthew Syed explores this idea in his deeply persuasive and accessible book, Black Box Thinking. Syed cites the aviation industry as the ultimate example of progressively learning from both failure and innovation-its embrace of objective analysis taking air travel from what was once the riskiest to what is currently the safest form of mass transportation.
Analysis Helps Creativity
The analysis is, therefore, the bedfellow, and not the bugaboo, of practical creativity. For by measuring and learning, not only do we sort the wheat from the chaff, we also help the good become great or, more often, just that little bit better. Malcolm Gladwell has a wonderful podcast that explores this process through the evolution of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah.” The piece took years to gestate, slowly improving its form and lyrics to become one of the most recognized classics in modern songwriting.
Little Bit Better
The operative phrase in the paragraph above is a “little bit better.” That’s something different from reinvention, and yet ironically, it requires a similar mindset. Though on reflection, maybe it’s not ironic at all for now, I think about it, the most analytic people I’ve worked with are among the best innovators -and almost all creatives I know are deeply analytic in their approach.Which brings me back to my opening example. For Ronald Reagan to make the breakthrough with Russia, he needed a creative leap of the type scientist Edward de Bono described when he wrote about shifting perspectives by throwing off old patterns. But to make it work for the gains to truly stick-he needed something more, something that the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, might have taught him- “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”