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Why the straight man matters in innovation

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Why the straight man matters in innovation

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When you think of innovation you think of the brilliant radical who has the courage and fortitude to swim against the tide.  They have the bravery and brilliance to think differently about how things should be.  From Martin Luther King to Steve Jobs, these people are often charismatic and charming.  They’re great orators who can draw a following behind them and their brilliance.

When we talk of innovation in an organizational context, this usually manifests itself in the innovators being cast as the cool kids, whilst the folks that are great at process and efficiency are the boring laggards who do little but hold innovation back, so beholden are they to the status quo.

The thing is, I think that kind of mentality is wrong, and is more often than not actually harming innovation in our organizations.

Whilst the crazy and adventurous radicals often get the headlines, it’s usually the case that those radicals have a partner sat behind them focusing on the details and the implementation.  They don’t often want the limelight in the same way that the radical does, but their part in the whole creative process is no less important for their backroom role.

In comedy for instance, the funny wise cracker may get all the attention, but the straight guy is often just as important in making the whole thing funny.  Would Eric Morecambe have been as funny without Ernie Wise alongside him?

These straight guys are everywhere.  Behind Steve Jobs was Steve Wozniak.  Behind Martin Luther King was Ralph Abernathy, behind Lennon was McCarthy, behind Vincent van Gogh was brother Theo.

These people matter.  Apple may have wrote a paean to the crazy ones, but those crazy ones usually need someone more grounded to help make their dreams a reality.

It’s why the make up of your innovation team is so important, and it’s almost certain that you have will have a mixture of creative radicals and those who are grounded in the realities of organizational life and excel at turning ideas into reality.

It’s likely to be the straight guys that will ensure that your innovation has an end product, so don’t make the mistake of thinking them too uncool to play a part.  Get out of the mindset that innovation = ideas and more into the mindset that innovation is when ideas are turned into reality.  For that, the straight guy is often essential.

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