Virtually every organisation claims it is “innovative,” however, this depends upon whether new ideas can get through the door… and this relies upon your organisational ‘Gatekeepers’.
The Gatekeepers are those who are appointed into roles where they get to choose ‘who’ sits at the table, who is invited onto the project team, to the workshop and so on. The motive and character of the gatekeeper is key.
Let me give you some examples of the corrupted Gatekeeper.
Professor White Beard and Dr Whip Smart
Imagine a high profile University institute is established to bring together researchers working from multiple academic disciplines on a ‘real-world’ problem. There may be engineers, scientists, social scientists and economists. It is headed up by Professor White Beard. He is established in his field, has an expectation of being in power and also wishes to remain at the top and be regarded as an innovative thought leader.
In another Department, there is the young buck – “Dr Whip Smart.” He was head-hunted from Europe; he has done astounding research in the field and he is crazy energetic setting up websites, social media avenues and is also pulling in big research grants. He leads a team of shaggy headed, but brilliant silicon-valley looking other young-bucks. Their eyes gleam with the shared passion of their work and they are driven and intensely focused. Even though Dr Whip Smart would be an invaluable contributor to the staid Institute’s gathering, Dr White Beard deliberately excludes him.
And it is White Beard who advises Government policy, ARC research grants and gets a seat at innovation policy planning forums. Dr Young Buck shrugs, he is too busy with his own projects to worry about it too much. But it is society (and tax-payers) who lose.
Mrs Clean Cut and Ms Shabby
Mrs Clean Cut is the entry point for people wishing to contribute articles to an Industry publication. A brilliant piece comes from a new thinker, Ms Shabby. However, Ms Shabby is not regarded as being ‘socially unacceptable’ for that Industry. She simply doesn’t dress the part or talk the way others do. She is terrible at networking and small-talk. She wears these long flowering skirts that just look so out of place.
Mrs Clean Cut , who has very refined outwards manners, advises Ms Shabby her article will be looked at. Meanwhile she passes the material to someone else who writes it up in another way. Ms Shabby’s 2 years of research and insights have just been stolen, in the politest of ways.
Thoughts – if you really want innovation
I recall attending a science conference, it was a specialized field. The softly spoken convener knew the subject matter deeply and had only invited those who had proven, but also edgy research in the field. As these experts spoke, one by one, it occurred to me what a mixed mob they were.
One was dressed a little bit like a ‘goth.’ Another was very overweight and had a body odour problem. One was very shy and simply got up and read from a typed sheet, not looking at the audience once, then furtively sat down, like a little mouse. But a smart mouse. One man had an impatient, agitated manner and a bow-tie. Another looked like a beach-bum.
And I thought to myself, this is what real intellectual talent looks like. What was lovely was that noone cared a snatch about what anyone looked like, what they wore, how they spoke or any of those other external things. There was just pure, shared enthusiasm for the work. For mutual learning, for collectively furthering the boundaries of knowledge.
It was a beautiful experience. People were valued for their actual gifts. Their gifts and talents were honoured. The convenor opened the door to all these people. The mood was cohesive, calm, tolerant. People just listened to each other and asked them questions about their findings. Ego had indeed been left at the door.
Look around your industry ‘think tanks’ or innovation cells – does everyone look the same?
If you look at your industry ‘innovation’ forums… does everyone look the same? Ask yourself, where are the the oddballs? Where is the person with a stutter? Because these are often the people with the most precious gifts to contribute. Because if we are serious about innovation, these things should not matter.
If there aren’t any… it might be to do with the Gatekeeper.
The ideal Gatekeeper…
This is where the personality and character of the Gatekeeper becomes so important. Who do they exclude and why? Who monitors the slick talking, powerful gatekeeper? Ideally, the gatekeeper is driven by the institutions’ well being and mission, and it selects people only based on this mantra, “how can this person help us?” They are brave and smart enough to see talent and possibility, and selfless enough to let it through the door.
My recommendation is that CEOs / Vice Chancellors / senior leaders of every institution carefully consider “who” are their Gatekeepers. I would also always create a second path for innovators, a side gate that is always open. Because the reality of Gatekeepers wishing to maintain their own power and prestige, (and comfort-zone), is a temptation too much for many.