Rethinking Innovation and Career In The New Year

Mar 18, 2021 | Innovation

Source and Attribution

By Michael B. ArthurSvetlana N. Khapova, and  Julia Richardson
This is a verbatim article

innovationJanuary is a time for resolutions and change.  In the excerpt below, the authors of An Intelligent Career: Taking Ownership of Your Work and Your Life explore the role of change in how we start projects, finish projects, and do work.

Thirty years ago, Jean-Luc Brès took an entry-level advertising position in Polydor records (now part of Universal Music group) in Paris, France.  Since then, he has watched  music  sales  shift from vinyl, to tape, CD, videodisc, Web downloads, and cloud storage.  Meanwhile, he has progressed through roles as advertising representative, advertising manager, marketer, marketing director, and more recently “development manager,” all within the same company.

He describes his present job as “developing new business forms around the music.” That means not only selling the music but also tying in related activities such as the sale of T-shirts, promotion of concerts, and licensing arrangements.  one recent project involved working with mobile phone providers on personalized music opportunities for their customers.  This opened both new markets for the music and new ties to show business.  Another project involved partnering with retail banks to develop a “music card” to merchandise credit cards to a new generation of cardholders.

He likes to make ideas work and laughs when he also says he likes making money.  He likes to convince people about new projects by sharing his ideas.  He argues that you must tell your bosses what you are thinking without too many details, so that they see you as the only person for the job.  Then you need to make your project succeed by using your relationships, and your marketing and product knowledge.  You cannot simply transfer all your knowledge to other workers since you need to have the creativity to face unforeseen situations.  That creativity, he insists, belongs to people, not to companies.

He believes that innovation is essential.  However, innovation is more than simply hatching a new idea.  The difficult part is to make an idea work and to think about and act on all the elements involved.  He likes change and likes to promote it in his company.  Neither he nor his company can afford to stand still.  He says making a mistake is only a problem if you don’t react to it.  It’s like cycling.  If you stop cycling, you fall.  If you keep cycling and looking for a new direction—whether it’s in a good or bad direction is another question—at least you continue.

His choice of projects has been driven by a mix of the money he can earn, his interest in the work, and the people he can work with.  The money enables him to live and to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle.  The work feeds his appetite for new learning, about changes in recording and distribution and incorporating them into the company.  That means collaborating with newspaper publishers, media outlets, telecommunications companies, retail banks, and performing artists.  His relationships with performing artists are “human, rather than economic.” He values working with a good team.  “You get money once a month, but you have to work with people every day.”

Despite his thirty years at the same company, his advice to others is to have no set career plan.  He acknowledges that some companies, like Procter and Gamble, have proposed a company career model.  However, he asks, “How many people are there in Procter and gamble who have had 20 years in the same group? Maybe the system did work out for some of them, but I suspect for many it did not.  You need to set yourself a target to take on a new position every three years, and you always need to be mobile.  You can use your three years’ experience with Procter and gamble to ask for a better position in another company.”

…imagine yourself in a room with four doors, the one you came in and three more.  If you have become familiar with the room, you are ready to look beyond it, so you go through one of the other three doors.  Then after you become familiar with the next room, you have the choice of a different set of doors.  The change you undergo in each room influences which room you choose next.

Since the interview for his story was conducted, Jean-Luc Brès has taken on another position, this time as CEO of Universal Music and Brands, France, which represents contracted artists to partnering corporate brands.  He has persistently changed what he does as his industry has changed.  How about you? When will you change? once more, let us explore our opening question through a series of alternative responses, this time covering your experiences with employment contracts, learning, losing a job, starting a project, finishing a project, taking your time, managing risk, breaking free, or diagnosing your current situation.

If “innovation is essential,” as Jean-Luc Brès suggests, how can you contribute to it? Science writer Steven Johnson has borrowed biologist Stuart Kauffman’s idea of the “adjacent possible” to help us understand and make the most of the opportunities available to us.  an example is the video-sharing website YouTube, launched with immediate success in 2005.  YouTube relied on users having the necessary graphical and video-sharing software and a high-speed Internet connection.  The founders of YouTube recognized that their idea had become possible, and the number of potential users could rapidly grow.  In Johnson’s words, the adjacent possible is “a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” YouTube’s founders got their timing right, and their innovation caught on.

Johnson invites you to imagine yourself in a room with four doors, the one you came in and three more.  If you have become familiar with the room, you are ready to look beyond it, so you go through one of the other three doors.  Then after you become familiar with the next room, you have the choice of a different set of doors.  The change you undergo in each room influences which room you choose next.  Johnson is writing about innovation, but he could just as well be writing about Brès’s career.  If a room represents one of his three-year projects, then he has gone in and out of ten or more rooms.  as he completed each project, he saw a new door to further opportunity—a key to why he worked.  In the new room he would both apply his expertise and seek new learning—keys to how he worked.  He would also draw on existing relationships and build new ones—a key to with whom he worked.

Projects are everywhere.  All employers—including public sector employers—need to innovate to remain relevant.  Brès’s projects in developing new products have their parallels in a wide range of industries—automobiles, biotechnology, consumer goods, financial services, healthcare, information technology, pharmaceuticals, and many more.  Many industries have an explicit project-based approach to organizing—such as accounting (audits), construction (roads and buildings), filmmaking (movies), law (cases), software (programs), and so on.  Even where those projects are led by large established firms, the underlying employment arrangements rely on a continual f low of new projects.  Where are your projects?

Let us look more closely at filmmaking.  Typically, a new production company is established for each new film.  Then the producer, director, screenwriter, financial backers, and lead actors are secured.  The process goes on through the rest of the cast, camera operators, set designers, wardrobe specialists, special effects people, stand-ins, grips, personal assistants, accountants, and—not least—runners, whose lowly positions often provide privileged learning opportunities at the heart of the action.  You get invited to join a new project based on the commitment you have shown before, the skills you’ve demonstrated, and the people you’ve come to know.  Each project requires change.

For each of the film crew’s participants, their  objectives  are  two-fold: First, play your part and do what you can to help the project succeed; second, learn something new, both for its own sake (it keeps work interesting) and to better position yourself for future projects.  Regarding the first objective, the film industry is already organized to celebrate the separate contributions people can make.  A movie can fail to win critical acclaim and still earn “Oscars” or similar awards for its actors, screenwriters, cinematographers, and so on.  The range of awards means that reputation is built largely in the specialization for which each person was invited to join up.  Regarding the second objective, filmmaking may offer a relatively privileged environment.  There is regular “down time” between shoots in which people can get to know each other better, gain a wider perspective, and trade experiences.  Learning happens on the set as well when actors, crew, and directors hone their complementary talents.

Not everyone in filmmaking gets the same opportunity for down time, and not everyone takes the same advantage of it.  However, people in filmmaking have it better than people in many other kinds of projects.  Mainstream guidelines about project management focus on using people efficiently and completing the project both on time and under budget.  Project managers’ performance is typically measured on these criteria, and the notion of projects providing fresh learning opportunities for their participants is largely absent.  The guidelines may suggest that you reflect on the project after its completion, but that advice comes too little, too late, for the intelligent career owner’s purpose.

The solution is to seek out fresh experiences for yourself and on your own terms.  You can bring parallel objectives to (1) make a contribution to the project, and (2) learn as you go.  You can see the two objectives as synergistic with one another since demonstrable commitment to project success is more likely to earn learning opportunities from others.  To paraphrase Denise Rousseau’s message from earlier in the chapter, the end of a project means a return to free society and the opportunity to take on something new.  The renewed motivation, enhanced skills, and additional contacts you have made are yours to bring with you.

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