Warren Zevon’s Prescription for Innovation – Ideas Lab


By Henry Doss

Innovation has a magic solution triumvirate: Brokers, role models, and risk-takers.

“Send lawyers, guns, and money… to get me out of this.” ­­– Warren Zevon

When the mythical narrator in the above-quoted Warren Zevon tune found himself in a bit of trouble, he knew he needed three things: “lawyers, guns, and money.”

Innovation, likewise, has its own magic triumvirate solution. But in the case of innovation, it’s not “lawyers, guns and money” – it’s brokers, role models, and risk-takers.

If you are faced with building or nurturing a culture of innovation in your organization, you may be looking for an approach that will give you a total solution – sort of the “lawyers, guns, and money” approach to innovation challenges. One place to start solution hunting is in the innovation culture’s informal trifecta: Brokers, role models and risk-takersWhen these roles are properly filled, you’ll find cutting-edge innovation. When these roles are not being filled, you’ll find a relatively bland, safe and predictable organizational dynamic.

Each of these roles serves to break down some common barrier to innovation, and to foster the kinds of interactions and collaboration from which innovation emerges. Brokers break down silos and build links between information groups, supporting cross-functional conversation and exchange. Role models inspire others by setting observable behavioral examples. Risk-takers overtly demonstrate the potential return on risk-taking, both for individual careers and for organizational benefit.

You won’t generally find these functions in job descriptions, nor will you find someone with a title like “risk-taker.” (Well, you shouldn’t, although given the wantonness with which job titles are created nowadays, you might!) Neither will you find these roles being directly incentivized, or formally evaluated, or even recognized, as a rule. Like many aspects of an innovation culture, they happen – serendipitously – or they don’t.  And because the roles are elusive and difficult to measure, they can go unappreciated and unnoticed. And then they gradually fade away.

But if you look hard in your organization, trust your own judgment, and use your best observational skills, you can find, nurture, and acknowledge these key individuals and keep their critical skill sets alive and growing.

Here’s what they do and why they’re important.

BROKERS: The greatest threat to innovation is an information silo. Free and open information exchange and conversation is the fuel that drives innovation in organizations. But all too often, information is walled off in divisions, functional areas, or geographies. Brokers in organizations provide the critical function of “information arbitrage.” They are the ones who seek out connections between people and ideas and foster conversation and interaction. If you see cross-discipline and inter-team work that is producing new ideas and thinking, there is someone playing the role of broker – someone who saw a connection between this and that and took steps to bring people together. Brokers are often somewhat rogue or indifferent to convention and hierarchy, and the value they create is often so intangible as to go unnoticed. But look hard and you’ll see them working to bring ideas and people together.

ROLE MODELS:  A role model is much more than simply someone who is visible. Role models embody an authentic and purposeful set of values and demonstrate those values through their actions. Innovation role models may not be risk-takers themselves, but they will understand the importance of risk and actively support risk-taking in their organization. They may not be active connection brokers themselves, but they will understand, look for and encourage connection making. The old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do,” gets turned on its head by the innovation role model. In the presence of powerful, authentic role models, members of an organization will model actions more than words. They will seek to “do what the role model does.”

RISK-TAKERS: Risk taking is not about being foolhardy. The innovation risk-taker brings good judgment and self-awareness to everything, but understands that there is a point – just there, beyond the safe, beyond the secure – where there are disproportionate rewards. In any organization, there are plenty of fumbles, missteps, train wrecks, and failures. But these are less the result of risk-taking, and more of ineptitude. Look for the places in your organization where there is lots of homework being done, lots of direct, plainspoken conversation, and a strong sense of fun, and you’ll find the risk-takers there. Risk-takers resist the temptation of the status quo and continuously push organizations into new – and quite possibly innovative – areas.

Like Warren Zevon’s answer to his problem, “guns, lawyers, and money,” – there is an answer to the innovation challenge: brokers, role models and risk-takers. Take an informal look around your organization. See if connections and links are being made between areas of operation and expertise. See if there are visible, authentic champions of innovation, and see if there are strong, well-prepared risk-takers pushing boundaries. If you are finding these kinds of activities, congratulations – you are in a strong innovation culture. But if you don’t, maybe you better make that phone call for “guns, lawyers, and money.”

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