November 29, 2017

To Encourage Innovation, We Need to Buck the Tribe

For decades, we’ve touted the superpower of tribes. Tribe members are those who “get” us. They share our interests, ideas and values and most importantly, accept us for who we are. But what happens when graduating from a tribal institution such as Oxford university becomes more of a liability than an asset? When the biggest brands no longer create the best innovators? When breaking away from the Hollywood pact to speak up about sexual assault is the only way to break through? Sure, your vibe attracts your tribe but it’s also your Achilles heel.

If leaders want to encourage innovation — or, at the very least, be someone with a unique perspective on the world — then they have to surround themselves with difference. It’s what has driven my interest in both the sciences and the arts, led me to date both Oxonians and Angelenos, brought the power of thinking from Harvard to Hollywood and allowed me to create the area of celebrity branding. I’ve always been willing to be a little uncomfortable and a lot out of my depth or to be the only person who thinks (or looks) like me in the room.

Similarly, millennials refuse to check their identities at the door. They believe in the value of their unique characteristics and they are desperate to bring that to the table. A team with members from diverse backgrounds and lifestyles may not see eye to eye on everything, but they’ll work harder, present more novel perspectives and are more likely to come up with powerfully resonant ideas. The lack of diversity, whether in Hollywood or Fortune 500 companies, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, leaves some industries less able to innovate and vulnerable to younger ones that generally embrace diversity.

Research shows that companies with a focus on ideation see significant bottom-line benefits if they have women and minorities in senior positions. It’s not just about creating a heterogeneous environment: brands that expect to do business around the world must promote and value diversity among their employees to create crossover ideas that can gain a competitive edge.

Apollo astronauts didn’t wear space suits created by an aerospace contractor; they were designed by lingerie manufacturer Playtex, which knew how to fit the human body exactly. Diehard gamers deciphered part of the molecular structure of HIV/Aids that had stumped medical scientists for years. Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Broadway’s hottest ticket Hamilton, brought the rhymes and rhythms of hip-hop to a biography about one of the US’s founding fathers. If you can show millennials you embrace them as they are, you will engage them.

One coalition of law, engineering, government and chemistry postdoctoral students founded Vaxess Technologies, which discovered a way to stabilise vaccines for shipping and storage without refrigeration. Vaxess has more than $6m in funding, numerous awards and grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health.