Andrew and Gaia Grant on ”The Innovation Race”: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Andrew Grant and Gaia Grant are the directors of Tirian International Consultancy, and authors of The Innovation Race: How to change a culture to change the game, along with Who Killed Creativity?… And How Can We Get it Back?’ thawas co-written with Jason Gallate. Gallate is a registered psychologist and has a PhD in neuroscience.

Andrew and Gaia have been engaged by market innovation leaders to help create a culture of innovation including: Google – working at their HQ in the US to introduce future solutions thinking; Nestlé – facilitating a workshop on sustainable solutions for emerging markets at HQ in Switzerland; Large finance institutions – assisting them with dealing with changes to the regulations; Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts – preparing the exec team and all GMs to embrace the potential future of the hospitality industry; Disney (HK) – creating compelling ideas to use for marketing, and Mercedes-Benz (China) with brand positioning.

They have presented keynotes at major international conferences including: TEDx (HK), World Presidents/Young Presidents Organization, Global Edge (Australia), The World Innovation Conference (France), and HR Summit (Singapore). The Grants have authored more than 30 corporate educational resources, simulations and programs that are used by Fortune 500 companies and are sold under license worldwide. Outside of their corporate work, Andrew and Gaia have also worked on breakthrough pro bono education projects across Asia, including designing educational material that has been targeted to reach over 25 million people in developing countries worldwide.

Gaia Grant is conducting HD (PhD) research into the role of culture change and transformation in sustainable innovation at the University of Sydney Business School, where she is also a guest lecturer. Gaia also has a, MSc (in creative leadership) and a Grad Dip in change leadership from The State University of New York, and BA Dip Ed, BD (hons) from Macquarie University.

As professional full time presenters, Gaia and Andrew know how to engage an audience and provide actionable outcomes.

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Before discussing The Innovation Race, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth and professional development? How so?

Andrew: We met when we were both in high school over 30 years ago, and 20 years ago we started our own consulting company together – through our mutual passion to educate people, I’d have to say Gaia has had the biggest influence on my personal and professional growth (I’m hoping she will say the same!) Over this time we have been able to share and bounce ideas off each other, many times challenging our personal perspectives and beliefs. As questioning and challenging is a core attribute to creative thinking we feel this relationship has been very valuable.

Gaia: Yes, it’s true, we are lucky to have been able to learn from and inspire each other both personally and professionally. Both of us are avid readers and we collect ideas from a wide range of sources and then discuss them and filter them through, so we have had a huge influence on each other. We have also had so many other influences through this reading that it’s difficult to identify one particular influence with the most impact.

Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Andrew: Yes, there were in fact a few! For the first 10 years of our careers we were both working in education (NGOs and government). We then moved into the corporate work 20 years ago when we started our consultancy company, and at that time we focused on leadership and team development. We realized that while the community level work we had been doing was very important, there was also a need for people in influential and powerful positions businesses to understand the importance of effective leadership and communication, as they could have a great impact on society in their roles. We were living in Asia at this time, so dealing with multicultural teams and helping leaders try to work with their leadership styles and adapting to working in different countries and company cultures was important.

Gaia: We then ended up focusing on creative thinking and innovation after a client (one of the big international banks) commented to us on just how creative our ideas were around 15 years ago. We have always tried to be creative in the way we present ideas as we recognize the dry presentation of information rarely sticks. If people just want the straight facts they could read a book rather than engage a facilitator! So when this client asked if we taught about the creative process, it sparked a curiosity for us, and we’ve been fascinated by the area ever since.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Gaia: I absolutely love learning! We are both motivated to learn informally through reading, but I also love the formal disciplined process of pushing yourself beyond what you’re comfortable with through guided input. My early education experiences definitely gave me the skills and background to prepare me for the consultancy work, and they introduced me to the love of learning. I had to put my formal education on hold for a few years when I needed to focus on the business and a growing family, but I’m now throwing myself into it, but during that time I continued to refer back to principles of psychology and of learning that I had absorbed during my early university degrees. I have specialized in learning about creative thinking and innovation for the last 5 years or so through a Grad Dip and MS in the field through the State University of New York, and I am now completing doctoral research into how to create a culture that supports sustainable innovation through my PhD with the University of Sydney Business School. I am thriving on the opportunities.

Andrew: Whilst Gaia is the queen of formal education, I’d like to think I’ve read and absorbed as much as her. I can’t get enough of good and diverse ideas. Living in Asia exposed us to many new ways of thinking and it’s no wonder as the research shows that being exposed to other cultures is a quick way to be more innovative and creative.

What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Andrew: Business people are still people, with the same good, bad and ugly relationship and communication patterns found in the general population. Being in high leadership positions doesn’t make you immune to problems. In fact one English study has revealed that there are more psychopathic bosses in executive rolls than in English prisons! All people need to continually work on their ability to communicate and share ideas effectively. Innovation won’t happen unless there are safe places and effective systems and processes in place for people to openly share their diverse ideas.

Gaia: I would agree – before I started the corporate work I had thought there was something special about the business world and that it would be difficult to make the transition into it, which made me more apprehensive about what we did initially. But although there are certainly some specific issues and challenges corporate companies face, we have discovered that the human element tends to be pretty universal. It was quite daunting entering the business sector 20 years ago, and if I had known that first it might have helped to make the initial transition smoother.

Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Andrew: An oldie jumps to mind – The Breakfast Club. Who would think that being locked in a school library for a day’s detention with only five actors could produce some of the most interesting character portraits and dialogue? Empathy is one of the main attributes needed for effective creativity and collaboration, and in this movie even though the five  characters started with animosity, they eventually learnt this important trait over the course of the day.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. 
First, from Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Gaia: This is quite a prophetic statement. There are always a few people that see into the future before the rest of us through creative thinking. Creative ideas like this can initially be perceived as radical, and it can take some time before everyone else catches up and accepts the value of these ideas. As soon as that idea becomes accepted and popular, ironically, it is no longer perceived as creative, and it can readily become mundane. I think we would all know that Galileo was persecuted for challenging the geocentric view of the world, and yet we wouldn’t think twice about it today.

Andrew: As the mainstream population tends to be risk averse, fearing the unknown, they will often reject these new ideas – this is why they are often referred to as ‘dangerous’. We all seem to have such short memories and forget that ideas were once unique once they have already become blasé. In our book The Innovation Race we tackle this paradox and show that the best companies can navigate this challenge effectively using what we call the ‘polar positioning’ strategy. There will always be those who will want to try to drag us into the future (what we call Explorers) and those that want a more stable slow ride (what we call Preservers). We need both perspectives to be held in dynamic tension in order to be able to charter a successful course forwards.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Andrew: This is identifying one of the significant differences between creativity and innovation. Both are the two sides to the one coin, and both are important. Having great ideas is not enough – you also need to be able to implement them.

Gaia: Yes, in my research with the University of Sydney Business School I have spent quite a bit of time exploring this paradox, that the creative process requires both imaginative and visionary thinking as well as focused analysis, prototyping, testing and execution. So often we think that innovation is just about brainstorming great ideas. But the great ideas will go nowhere if there aren’t good systems and processes in place to support the follow through to implementation. I have been looking into how to measure the both sides of the innovation process in order to identify areas of strength and challenge, and have developed a model for developing effectiveness in both areas. I have also been able to show how different leadership and behavior styles will typically have a bias towards one side of the process, for example ‘Explorers’ are typically more visionary, while ‘Preservers’ are typically better at follow through and implementation.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization. How do you explain this situation? In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

Gaia: We have mapped the typical engagement process with the organizations we have worked with over the last 20 years, and we have discovered that while there is a typical ‘life cycle’ that promotes creative thinking and engagement, there can also be a parallel cycle that can hinder creative thinking and impact engagement. This can become a destructive vicious cycle, a downward spiral. We’ve found it usually starts with an overly controlling environment that leads to fear – a fear of making mistakes, a fear of failure, a fear of trying new things and so on. Fear can in turn lead to the feeling of pressure and a lack of freedom. If there is no intervention at this point, apathy and pessimism can set in. We talk about these cycles in our book Who Killed Creativity?

Andrew: So, in order to increase engagement we suggest starting right at the very beginning, with providing more freedom and empowerment. Other research has also supported our finding that the more empowered people feel in their work, the more engaged they will be. It is worthwhile assessing the workplace culture to identify the levels of freedom and empowerment. We have guidelines for this in our book The Innovation Race, and Gaia has also developed an organization culture assessment to help measure this.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Gaia: Balancing the paradox of Exploration and Preservation. The Exploration focus is needed for breakthrough innovation to deal with wicked global problems and to survive highly competitive business environments, and the Preservation focus is need for the smaller incremental innovations that will to help maintain systems and processes that will support the organization and keep it stable through rapid times of change.

Andrew: This is why we refer to the challenge as “The Innovation Race.” Just navigating on one side of the road, or sticking to one side of the paradox (e.g. Exploration OR Preservation), is a slow path. All racing car drivers will tell you that you need to find the best racing line between the two sides of the road. Many leaders navigate the side of the road that suits them personally according to their own preferences, but you need to continually balance both through a conscious strategic decision. There are times a company as a whole needs to be more focused on Exploration and other times they need to be more focused on Preservation.

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Andrew and Gaia invite you to check out the resources at these websites:

Tirian link

The Innovation Race link

The Innovation Race interviews link

Who Killed Creativity? link

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