[Quote] We say in Africa

Innovation work is not about any one function or person, not even about leaders or stakeholders. It can only succeed with a true team and real, productive togetherness.

[Quote] We say in Africa

“We say in Africa that
a person is a person
through other persons.

A solitary human being is
a contradiction in terms.

We are made for togetherness,
for friendship, for fellowship.

— Desmond Tutu. South African theologian and civil rights activist

The points for innovation:

This quote embodies two innovation-relevant meanings to me: (1) "Don't reject your org" and (2) "Team over individual."

Don't reject your org

As pointed out elsewhere, innovation teams must not act as if they were an island, independent of the rest of their organization. You can be in "silent mode" or work "skunkworks style." But you still have to keep your team credible to everyone else nonetheless. In Tutu's words, "you are only a person [i.e., corporate innovation team] through other persons [i.e., the corporation]."

First, there is of course your moral obligation. You get paid. You owe the people who owe you some value in return. Value that they would recognize as value of course, just the same way as when a craftsperson comes to my house to do a job and say it's done "well," I, as the customer, still get to be the final judge.

And then there is the series of issues called out elsewhere too: If the rest of your organization routinely rejects your work, it was a waste. That is of course why you must do diva-style innovation work and create Universally-Usable Prototypes (UUPs). In a startup, the only definition of success that matters is that of the startup team (and investors). But for anyone in an existing organization even to be able to use any of your work--let alone want to do so--your output must be usable to them and your purpose enough of a must-do to deal with all the bothers that surely accompany it, in both cases from their perspective, not yours.

And again Tutu has a litmus test for gauging whether you succeed at both fronts: The team's relationship with the wider org must be marked by "togetherness, friendship, and fellowship."

Team over individual

Where the prior point considered the tie between the innovation team and the wider org, this next one faces inward:

Innovators are human, with the same tendencies and weaknesses as anyone else – prima donnas abound, there's orthodoxy, in-group & out-group thinking, fear, resentment, showing off, distractions, and everything else we must contend with.

And yet, being able to succeed as a group, as a team with a real bond, matters more than almost anywhere else in business.

When we start our work, often nothing exists at all. If we try to bring worlds into being all on our own, we will fail. It takes all of us, without petty distractions.

If it does take all of us, then it takes all of us together. Were we each to do our work on an island, engineering separate from the business, separate from product, operations, sales, and so on, nothing would fit together in the end. With infinite options, the chance that we independently build pieces that fit together is basically nil. By the way, "together" includes an element of "at the same time." We can't succeed if we judge some people or functions as being relevant to front end (or in-market) work but tell others to come back later. There is no such thing as a "real" set of front-end (or in-market) functions. It takes us all together.

If it takes all of us together, then we need really, really great ways of interacting, or things will be a chaotic snarl ... or worse. A fantastic culture (based on what it lets us achieve, not based on how great we claim it is), great cadences of working together and alone, and great clarity about our direction and our approach are all non-negotiable.

And finally, if it takes great ways of interacting, it takes great leaders to help the team be its best:

Coming back to the top of this argument, these leaders must be great for this specific context, where nothing exists and everything is theoretically possible. That context takes a very different approach to leadership than the constrained and complex situation of operating a running business. And that unique innovation leadership style takes conscious effort to practice and master. Despite those qualities, these leaders are not "better" than the team. The central point still holds: Innovation work is about the team more than it is about any one individual, including the leader. Leaders don't have the answers either. That's why we research and test. And leaders can't make all the decisions. When we have infinite options, team members will by necessity have made gobs of decisions before they ever ask for a leader's input. So the leader, too, must rely on and work toward having a fantastic group of people, forged into a fellowship with bonds that can outlast all the challenges ahead.


The Soul of a New Cuisine

by Marcus Samuelsson

Harvest (2006)

Find on author's website

Further reading

The Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation. Accessed Nov 02, 2023. https://www.tutu.org.za/

Desmond Tutu. In Wikipedia. Accessed Nov 02, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desmond_Tutu

Lama, D., Tutu, D., & Abrams, D. C. (2016). The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. National Geographic Books. http://books.google.com/books?id=AW-NEAAAQBAJ&hl=&source=gbs_api 

Samuelsson, M., & Walters, H. S. (2006). The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa. Harvest. http://books.google.com/books?id=2io-AQAAIAAJ&hl=&source=gbs_api