Developing a corporate innovation strategy is the current fixation of many CEOs as they try to pull their organisations out of the crisis. Hiring innovation specialists, kicking off an “innovation programme” or employing creativity coaches are not, in and of themselves, going to help companies win. In order to innovate people must feel comfortable, and in order to feel comfortable people must feel trust.
In January 2010, after having worked for two huge financial services institutions before, during, and after the financial crisis, I witnessed behaviours that I never want to see again in any boardroom: Many change agents were branded trouble makers and many leaders became a self-interested subversives. Most people put their heads down, withdrew themselves as much as they could from their organisations and tried not to get noticed in order to try not to get fired. Either that, or they lined their nests as well as they could, just in case they got fired or because they knew they would not get a good bonus. The greed and envy of the bubble had given way to the fear and anger of the aftermath and this shift placed some blindingly obvious lessons about corporate culture into sharp relief.
More precisely the shift demonstrated that the years of the financial bubble had enabled executive teams to devalue the importance of team building at any level in their organisations. Times were so good that it was hard to imagine that they would ever have to pull together to fight their way out of a corner – and it is only when you need to fight your way out of a corner that you need to pull together, quickly develop a strategy for the crisis and put it into motion with the entire physical and emotional strength of the organisation behind you. Just at the moment when leadership teams needed the full commitment and creativity of everybody in their organisations, they realised they did not have them. Further, when they asked for commitment and creativity they were shocked to discover that they did not get them. They reaped what they had sown and, in the main, they had sown shallow cultures based not on trusting relationships but on transactional ones.
We human beings forget that we are tribal animals. It is in our DNA to join a group and stay in the group. We do not risk rejection for very good evolutionary reasons. Rejection from the tribe meant near certain death either at the claws and teeth of a wild animal or at the hands of a neighbouring tribe. Rejection is not only painful, it is potential lethal. To be laughed at, humiliated, contradicted, belittled, insulted, ridiculed, teased, or ignored is to be rejected. Sharing ourselves – and a corporate setting this means at a minimum sharing our ideas – is, therefore, a risky business and most of us will not do so unless we are absolutely certain we will not be rejected.
Creativity requires us to be confident not only in ourselves but also in our colleagues. To that end, organisations must value trust and invest in helping executives develop trusting relationships. Trust takes time but there are ways of cycle compressing the development of trusting relationships if executives are willing to invest in each other. What is absolutely true, however, is that executive teams will not harness the creative capabilities of the people in their organisations if they do not create a culture in which people feel supported, where the risk of rejection (in any of its many nasty little forms) is low and where the behaviours associated with rejecting others will be met with widespread disapproval and, ultimately, with admonishment. Organisations like this do exist. They have visionary leaders at their heads who understand that treating people decently, building a culture that celebrates individuality and eccentricity, and creating an atmosphere in which people feel they can bring all of themselves to work without being rejected is the key to long-term success. Sadly, I have not met one for a while.
I have woken up every day with a genuine desire to change the world for the better. For many years I worked as a strategy consultant, assisting senior executives in some of the world’s largest companies to develop strategies and implement changes to provide long-term benefit to shareholders, employees, and all other stakeholders. I have come to believe that it is the quality and culture of senior management teams that make the difference between the development or the destruction of long-term value. Helping executive teams consider appropriate data, listen to one another’s needs and ideas, build a trusting culture in which all members feel valued and comfortable, make timely decisions, and communicate appropriately both internally and externally are all aspects of my role as a strategy consultant. I have had some successes and some failures over my career as a strategy consultant and, until January 2010 I always felt that I was changing the world for the better by making a contribution to the executives with whom I worked, and the organisations for which they worked. By the end of January 2010, however, I was tired: tired after 12 months of meeting mediocre leaders who , in a crisis, surrounded themselves with incompetent subordinates, did little to develop cultures in which great ideas could thrive and lots to engender competitive, divisive behaviour, and actively suppressed or punished those who were trying to enable good ideas to thrive. After a month of sulking on the sofa, obsessively baking to while away the wee hours, and a couple of extremely important conversations, I decided to “do something” with bread.
In an earlier post I wrote about the bread part and the website has a whole section about virtue – but why Virtuous Bread? The truth is that I woke up one morning and suddenly realised that I could change the world through bread, so I do. I change the world through bread, working at the level of the individual. I teach, bake, write, volunteer, do bread based board meetings, enable people to set up and run home bakeries and bread baking courses, and speak about bread as a catalyst for social change. By providing a supportive environment in which people learn to bake bread, I help people build self-esteem, develop a vital life skill, win praise, earn money, build the health and welfare of their local communities, feel valued, and rediscover a sense of wonder. It’s all about bread and it’s all about people.
I recently learned that there is something called “values based social change” – change at the level of the individual who wants to learn something or do something to change their lives and the lives of others for the better. I believe that there is a place for all kinds of social change and that the struggle to change our world for the better must take place at many levels and in many areas – policies can guide and organisations have great power but ultimately the choice is ours and I can but lead by example, making it fun and easy for people all over the world to make and find and learn about good bread and in so doing to forge the link between bread and virtue.