Less hot air will lead to more innovation

Less hot air will lead to more innovation

At my company, we have a mantra to help us live up to our values: "No bullshit". Don't be offended. BS kills innovation, so it's important to understand what it is, how it works against innovation, and how you can deal with a culture that breeds and tolerates it.

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much BS," said the American moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt. BS is stupid or untrue talk or writing. A person producing BS is just speaking or writing hot air.

As Frankfurt said: "When we characterise talk as hot air, we mean that what comes out of the speaker's mouth is only that. It is mere vapour. His speech is empty, without substance or content. His use of language, accordingly, does not contribute to the purpose it purports to serve. No more information is communicated than if the speaker had merely exhaled. There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally, which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent."

What drives people to BS? In their book Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense, the management professors Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles write: "BS is to be expected whenever someone feels impelled by the situation to say something profound but lacks entirely the knowledge to do so."

Faced with an overlong silence in a meeting, or a question to which they don't know the answer, those full of BS speak nonsense, hoping to save face and avoid revealing their lack of knowledge.

What's your organisation's BS quotient (BQ)? Sadly, there's no standard measure. But it's easy to get a sense of how bad things are. Just ask this: What percentage of discussions — meetings, e-mails, conversations — produce only hot air rather than tangible results?

BS happens everywhere in an organisation, but it is most common among those subject to the Peter Principle, which states, "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence". When someone is promoted to a role for which he lacks the knowledge and skills to fulfil, he starts spewing BS to hide that fact.

Other factors can make this worse, as in Asia, where people utter nonsensical fluff to "save face", and the values of harmony and respect for those more senior mean that listeners will "show consideration" by not exposing BS for what it is.

Is BS less harmful than lies? Goddard and Eccles point out that liars know the truth, but corrupt it in order to deceive others. BS artists, on the other hand, don't care about the truth. They only want to paper over something they find uncomfortable. This simply indicates a lack of character.

Elie Wiesel once said, "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." Similarly, the opposite of the truth is not a lie — it's BS, which hides intentions and motives and comes from a perspective that isn't accurate. This makes BS a major obstacle to innovation.

Regrettably, today's business environment encourages BS for a number of reasons:

The faster things change, the more difficult it is for people to keep their knowledge current.

The less people know about something, the more BS is to be expected.

The more people are concerned with saving face, the more BS is to be expected.

The more an organisation encourages pretence and politics over the truth, the higher its BQ.

The higher the BQ of an organisation, the less likely it is able to produce meaningful innovation.

How does BS work against innovation? Innovation starts with awareness, both of what you know, and what you don't know. Closing gaps in your knowledge leads to insights and a better understanding of your challenge, leading to the novel, unique and meaningful ideas that are the seeds of innovation. But if that awareness of the truth is replaced by BS, the innovation process can only produce more of the same.

If you find yourself surrounded by BS, here's how to survive it, or, better, to lead your organisation away from it:

Don't be a BS artist. If you don't know about a subject and can't sensibly contribute to a discussion, keep silent. If someone asks you about the subject, have the courage to say, "I don't know."

When you catch someone talking BS, say so. If "that's BS" is too harsh, you can use Guy Kawasaki's term "Bull Shiitake", or say, "That's just a lot of hot air." If the BS artist hits back, ask for evidence that what he's saying is true and useful. If that person is your boss, and this is an isolated incident, then maybe bite your tongue.

When starting a project, have the whole team discuss and record what you don't know.

What if BS is a cherished practice in your organisation? Then you're better off leaving, sooner rather than later. Organisations full of BS cannot innovate and will not flourish in the innovation economy. After all, what can you expect from an organisation with a high BQ? A steady stream of fresh BS.

Dr Detlef Reis is the Founding Director and Chief Ideator of Thinkergy Limited (www.Thinkergy.com), the Ideation and Innovation Company in Asia. He is also a University Lecturer for Business Creativity and Innovation Leadership at the College of Management, Mahidol University (www.cmmu.mahidol.ac.th). He can be reached at dr.d@thinkergy.com

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