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By Kay Hannaford

Innovation and the neighbours

How have I learned about innovation from my neighbours? You might well ask.

I’ve been coaching 23 middle managers from a manufacturing company over the past two weeks to prepare them for a leadership program. This company is, like most, very keen to foster innovation and I was struck by the diversity of ideas, skills and experiences to draw on in the middle management ranks. However, also like most organisations, everyone is under the pump and there’s little time left even for communication, let alone innovation.

By contrast, I am fortunate to belong to a group of neighbours who meet every three months for what one wag dubbed ‘the Kulture Klub’. Each meeting we have a topic, chosen by the hosts and we’ve been taking turns to host these meetings for more than ten years. Topics so far have ranged from love, maps, music, water and childhood road trips to gardens, food, sub-Saharan Africa, the elephant in the room and Christmas stories. We can speak for five minutes on the topic or just listen, if we prefer, and we marvel each time at the diversity of angles, approaches and ideas presented. Some people sing, some write poetry, some do meticulous research, some share personal stories, all are entertaining and quite fascinating. Last week’s gathering was a classic example, with the most challenging topic yet.

‘Topless’ was the theme emailed by our hosts a couple of months in advance. Topless? We all grumbled good-naturedly when we bumped into each other at the shops about having no idea how to fill five minutes on such a, well, weird topic. My feminist hackles rose and fell as I considered options, including the hypocrisy of people wanting to ban breast-feeding in public while at the same time drooling over topless women and I even discovered a movement called Free the Nipple! In the end I chose to tell an irresistible story I found about the first ever topless duel waged between two aristocratic Austrian women in 1892. Their female doctor advised undertaking this pursuit topless for practical, rather than sexual reasons. Apparently, the biggest danger from duelling arises from infections caused by pieces of clothing being embedded in the flesh by the tip of the rapier. Who knew?

Fifteen of the brave neighbours gathered, most still shaking their heads wondering what was coming. The hosts had decorated their living room with posters of topless rock stars festooned with coloured brassieres. As proceedings began, one by one, our friends regaled us with these diverse offerings: planting and culling a pine forest leaving selected pines topless, the discovery and properties of a plant gene named topless, an original poem created with the help of a rhyming dictionary using 25 words rhyming with topless, the stories of the inventor of the bottle opener and the inventor of Coopers lager and a demonstration bringing the two together to render the bottle topless (and, of course, drinking the beer), news of topless yoga, the history of brain surgery, a personal experience of flying in a topless Waco plane from the local airstrip over our neighbourhood, a search for new cleaners leading to a topless cleaning service, an original story about two decorated topless hard-boiled eggs named Egbert and Egberta, a scientific description of how the earth is becoming topless from melting arctic ice, the importance of recycling plastic bottles topless, a tongue-in-cheek expose of the variety of services and prices offered by some of Adelaide’s topless bars and the story of Annie Leibovitz whose career took off after publication of her Rolling Stones cover photo of topless rock stars, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. One neighbour brought along photos of topless houses, cars and poultry to illustrate the theme and finished by demonstrating the best method of easing a cork from a bottle of champagne, likened to ‘the sigh of a contented woman’. Another filled his five minutes mentioning all the possible topics he thought of relating to the word topless, including anagrams (postles?, potless?), the chemical compositions of crusts that form on topless bottles and jars, ISIS and the history of beheadings, topless mountains and volcanoes.

It is eye-opening to see what a group of people can come up with, given a challenge and a safe opportunity to explore and express their thoughts about it. We typically laugh a lot and we learn a great deal, not least about ourselves and each other.

So what’s the link here with innovation and my coaching clients?

Time. That’s one key element that’s missing in our businesses and organisations. Give people a topic, any topic and time to think about it and they will all come up with new ideas, angles and innovative ways to bring it to life. That’s why some smart businesses allocate regular time for employees to play with ideas not related to specific work projects.

Trust and Respect. Our neighbours, like most groups, come in all shapes and sizes, backgrounds, personality profiles, communication styles, skills, talents and experiences. People come and go from the group. Everyone has an interesting story to tell and no one fears being ridiculed. We laugh with each other, never at each other. We have developed, over time, trust and acceptance of each other exactly as we are and respect for our diverse points of view and contributions. In fact, the Kulture Klub has played a big role in building that trust and respect, through providing regular time and space to explore and listen to each other’s ideas and to really get to know each other.

Fun. This is a highly underrated commodity in corporate and organisational life, especially as its a key ingredient underpinning creative endeavours such as innovation. Even when the Kulture Klub topics are serious ones, we can’t take ourselves too seriously in five minutes. We build community through fun and surprise as people share the unexpected and gain confidence in disclosing different aspects of themselves.

It’s like alchemy and that’s what occurs in innovation.

I think there’s a strong link between the alchemy that occurs in coaching conversations when unexpected aspects of people emerge, the alchemy that arises in our neighbours’ conversations focused around specific topics; the alchemy so vital for innovation.

Wait. How did we get to alchemy and innovation from the topic ‘topless’?

 

This blog first appeared on

kayhannaford.com/insights

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