Business and Genius – Friends or Foes?
Throughout the time we have been working on “Enabling Genius” we have spent a lot of our time considering Paradox; talent and genius, education and creativity, nurture and nature – the list is extensive. The inquiry into Genius that has resulted in the book does not stop with its publication. The more we do, the more questions it seems to raise.
One such question concerns the links between genius and business. At first, the links seem obvious – we easily connect Genius and Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Zuckerberg and many others. On reflection however, all of these icons established their businesses right at the beginning of what we are now terming “The third great wave” – the intersection of “big data”, artificial intelligence, and robotics whose promise looks ready to dwarf the impact of the first two waves – the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
The changes we have seen up to now have largely been the result of using technology to boost existing business models, adapted from the second wave, but still governed by hierarchies and conventional models of capitalism. Social media is still largely that – but it is changing.
But what about Genius in the age of “Makers”, in the age of ubiquitous connection and the blockchain? What happens when we no longer have to build an infrastructure around a genius to commercialize an idea, but genius ideas can find their own connections that turn them into value?
Enabling Genius in Business
We can consider three aspects of business and genius – Firstly, the nature of “business genius” – the motive power; Secondly the nature of business discovery – the raw materials to which the power is applied, and lastly the environment in which all this is taking place.
So, just what is “Business Genius”? There are thousands of books and hundreds of inspirational speakers who will purport to tell us. What they seem to have in common is that no matter how successful the author, the “formula” they espouse does not seem to last for very long after publication. The more candid (and more successful) of these, like Tom Peters and Jim Collins, are refreshingly candid about these anomalies, which, I suspect shows a mindset that made them successful in the first place. But, as Marshall Goldsmith reminds us, “what got you here won’t get you there”. Maybe we have to remember that whilst we, and arguably many businesses have massive potential, we don’t have infinite time in which to realize it. (Perhaps one way of understanding Genius is that it lives on after people and businesses expire, whereas talent is no more a servant of genius ideas and boundaried by the “talent’s” career?)
In a 2013 copy of Harvard Business Review, Michael Raynor and Mumtaz Ahmed distilled thousands of successful businesses to identify commonalities, and they had a refreshing simplicity – three rules; better rather than cheaper, revenue growth rather than cost reduction and a third rule that stated whatever else, stick to rules one and two.
In terms of genius, this simple approach has a pleasing congruence with what we understand about craft, reflecting the “marriage of head, heart and hand” – purpose and passion- outlined by Richard Sennett in his book “The Craftsman”. We can recognize the qualities in many of those considered business geniuses, and can also note the financial success was a result of, not a driver of it.
So, if the simplicity of this touches on the nature of business genius, what about those who bring it about – the entrepreneurs and leaders of business?
Here, it gets more complicated. Whilst some entrepreneurs may show signs of genius, few geniuses show signs of successful business leaders. Geniuses are often iconoclasts, original thinkers with a single minded pursuit of what obsesses them, and do not often have the rationality, objectivity and profit focus of a great business.
In a review of the attributes of genius, Walter Isaacson included pursuit of simplicity, and a passion for perfection, as well as willingness to challenge others and bring out the best of them. Missing from the list though were key qualities included in an HBR article on the attributes of great entrepreneurs – including an opportunistic mindset, prudence and high levels of social capital (Geniuses do not appear to share this characteristic to any significant degree).
There is an interesting commonality in one area though – ethics. Roberta Ness, in ”Psychology Today” reviews the “dark side” of genius – the pursuit of goals beyond the practices of good behaviour, and the pursuit of ideas and success beyond the boundaries of ethical acceptability. We can find many areas where this dark side has manifested in entrepreneurs, businesses and geniuses………
I suspect that maybe the biggest linkage between business and genius is in the environment where they meet. In the past, the delivery of creativity – ideas that add value – relied on three things – the insight, the design of a means to deliver it, and the finance to do so. For fairly obvious reasons, this most often took place in cities and other areas of high-density population. This has been well documented, not least in discussions around the “Medici Effect”.
However, the changes taking place as the “Third Wave” builds have the potential to change all that. In “Enabling Genius” we have considered a number of propositions, including notions that genius is available to all, and that we all have moments of genius. In previous times, the chances of genius meeting the capability to enable it were distinctly limited – but this is no longer the case. In an age of the “Internet of things”, ideas are things. As we find ourselves in a time when everything is connected to everything, the possibilities are endless.
This brings us to a critical aspect of environment – the ground in which genius grows.
Businesses have an ambivalent relationship with genius. It often provides the seed of great businesses, but our industrialized models can stunt its growth. As genius solves a “mystery” – from flight to genome science, the interests of business often lie in capturing it, codifying it, protecting it, and capitalizing it. As “mystery” gives way to “heuristic” – a means of reliably replicating it, and in turn to an “Algorithm” – locking it down and replicating it endlessly at low cost – we become resistant to the next piece of genius unless it’s ours. We educate, train and incentivize people to become highly efficient at delivering what is now an ageing idea. We find ourselves taken hostage by the returns the business gives us, and blind to possibility unless it offers guaranteed improved returns. Or, at least, we did. As Uber, AirBnb, WhatsApp and many other low cost start-ups have shown, there is limited protection in size and intellectual property in the Third Wave.
The other interesting facet here is that genius and business are linked, but not dependent. Both AirBnB and Uber were very clever expressions of an idea already out there – the “sharing economy” – which had been around for many years before Uber, AirBnB, ZipCar and others capitalized on it.
Brilliant execution maybe, but perhaps not Genius.
Creating the conditions for Genius Business
Perhaps the most curious, and most concerning around enabling genius in business lies in how we appear to be preparing for it.
Yet another paradox. At a time when we recognize an increasing need for creativity as routine jobs, and indeed professional jobs will be undertaken by “intelligent machines”, we continue to focus our education and training on the skills that are under threat. In their book, “The Future of the Professions”, Richard and Daniel Susskind argue persuasively that the majority of work undertaken in the professions is as vulnerable to replacement by automation as any, and in many cases more so, than the blue collar jobs we have come to expect.
Yet, in this recent article, Abigail Moore highlights the contradiction between what we say we want, and what we are doing. The young children she talks about, whose creativity we are burying, are those we will depend upon in fifteen years time – about the same timescales as the impact of the Third Wave will become really felt.
We are training for compliance and competence at a time when the game changer is creativity and genius. Adam Grant, in his latest book “Originals” goes further. He highlights that very few prodigies go on to genius. They become hugely adept and skilled at what they have been told is valued, by peers and employers – and lose sight of the potential they have to do something meaningfully extraordinary.
The future of business and genius
In times of such rapid change, it is extraordinarily difficult to predict how this will turn out. We can be confident that future shocks will trigger unexpected results. Our economists are already confidently predicting the next financial crisis, and sooner rather than later. The counter to this of course is that every shock creates opportunity – just rarely for those who allowed themselves to become dependent on, and hostage to, the convenient orthodoxies of the day.
We can be confident that genius will continue to emerge, and will do so increasingly in closer proximity to those factors – production and finance – that will enable it.
The challenge for us, as humans, is to do what we do best – imagine, dream, communicate and enable. If we can develop that, and move beyond outdated notions of how business works, we can do extraordinary things.