The Value of a “Cross Domain” View


Dan Pink

Dan Pink

Dr. Orin Davis (@DrOrinDavis) has written up two more short pieces — essentially his reflections from the talks of Rebecca Henderson and Dan Pink at the recent World Innovation Forum. His comments on Pink are somewhat provocative, so, be aware I do not share Orin’s views exactly. Orin is a well read academic (and practitioner as well) and he knows a lot about the wide array of literature that exists for creativity and innovation — that’s why I’ m publishing his insightful work here. His critique of Pink is interesting to me because I was not aware of who Pink borrows from, and, if he is borrowing faithfully to the original research. That said, I think there’s a real value for people like Dan Pink (or Malcolm Gladwell) to collect information and connect dots, even if they are not original researchers, and project ideas and possible strategies. Michael Kirton, Phd would call this “domain breadth”. Every now and then innovation is about somebody pulling together bits and pieces from far and wide, existing bits and pieces, and finishing a puzzle. I’ve been tempted to read Pink’s latest book about selling (To Sell is Human) and I’m going to have to now! I did like Pink’s breakthrough book A Whole New Mind. Reading Orin’s remarks I want to see if To Sell is as obvious or as unremarkable as he indicates. If Pink is saying taking “low status” in a selling situation is always a good idea, I’d beg to differ! And people have said “everyone is a salesperson” for years! So, without further comment here are Orin’s posts — sharp edged commentary and analysis on Pink and Rebecca Henderson — from the recent World Innovation Forum.


Rebecca Henderson on Sustainability in Business, World Innovation Forum 2013

Reimagining Capitalism: Innovation, Values, and the Bottom Line

Almost every company you can name would love to make money while doing good, but that mission seems out of reach for too many firms.  In the hopes of making sustainability accessible, Professor Rebecca Henderson had a few suggestions that might help companies even the odds if they want to have their business exhibit the values they aim to espouse.  Yet, even when talking about success, companies tend to balk at change.  They fear that it’s not going to work, that customers won’t like it, and that the company won’t make any money.  While Prof. Henderson acknowledged these concerns as valid, she suggested stepping back and taking a look at what makes firms successful (and sustainable!):

A plausible business case for the value they aim to create.  Successful and sustainable companies develop a deep understanding of their business model and the competitive realities in which they operate.  They create real value by linking product or service technologies to real customer and consumer needs.  If it doesn’t add value for customers, it doesn’t add value for the company, so don’t waste time, energy, and effort creating something that doesn’t have value.

Keep the organization from getting in its own way.  As companies develop new business models, they need to generate a new set of expectations, control systems, and incentives to go along with it.  Upgrade the antiquated system for more efficient processing.

Rebecca Henderson of Harvard

Rebecca Henderson of Harvard

Build deep cultural/emotional commitment.  When firms build a brand, they are displaying the values that they want both employees and customers to buy into.  A company with a sincere desire towards sustainability is going to show an eye for the long-term insofar as it necessarily looks for insurance against risks of over-consumption, seeks to reduce costs by constant upgrading, builds new businesses to capitalize on the changing market, and keeps an eye on supply, demand, and consumption.  A sustainable business also necessarily has a global and diversity-oriented perspective, and a focus on value creation.  Across the board, this is good business thinking, and is thus an excellent merge of economics and values.

The one drawback, however, is that companies may need to forgo short-term profit and quick wins for a slower, steadier race.  The sports car may be a sleeker, faster, sexier ride, but the hybrid goes far more distance!

Note: Rebecca Henderson is Co-director of the Business and Environment Initiative at Harvard, Rebecca investigates organizations response to large-scale technology shifts.


Dan Pink at the World Innovation Forum (2013)

Probably the hardest part about listening to Dan Pink is that the only original material he may have is his jokes.  Pink’s opener about management consultants was rather humorous, I’ll admit, and maybe that’s because I’ve worked with and taught plenty of them: “Management consultants get paid by the syllable, so the idea is to take a simple concept and make it into a long and complicated word…You can make partner with a seven-syllable word.”  Sadly, it was downhill from there, with the entirety of Pink’s presentation going from ideas lifted wholesale from other sources (not even remixed for some originality), to erroneous statements, to soi-dissant “insights” that turn out to have so many caveats as to be invalid.

Pink’s overarching thesis is that we all need to be salespeople now, like it or not.  That being the case, Pink thought he would distill some key advice from the research of social psychologists and behavioral economists (notably, he is neither of these!).  He first started by discussing the value of perspective-taking, which is a safe bet given the number of prominent business thinkers and psychologists (most recentlyAdam Grant, and others include Adrian Slywotzky) who have pointed out that the best way to make a connection with someone is through empathy (which requires perspective-taking and theory of mind).  Pink then proceeded to suggest that salespeople take a position of low power in their proceedings, because people in low-power positions are better at perspective-taking.  To support his arguments, he cited Galinsky (et al., 2006), which is built off of earlier research in the 80’s by Hass, both of which Pink used to suggest an inverse relationship between power and perspective-taking.

A close look at the papers, however, reveals several concerns with this conclusion.  The two most glaring issues are: (1) that the majority of the participants in nearly all of the experiments were right-handed, college-aged women, (2) sample sizes for these experiments were pretty small.  Both individually, and combined, the two issues drastically reduce the generalizability of the findings.  Second, a look at Hass’s results show results reflecting lower perspective-taking in conditions of high self-focus versus low self-focus (notably not power).  Other results from Hass are minimally significant and relate lower perspective-taking with lower public self-consciousness (viewing oneself from the perspective of an outsider – again, notably not power).  Third, a look at Galinsky’s studies in the 2006 paper showed that people primed to see themselves in a high-power position were less likely to “spontaneously adopt another person’s visual point of view” (p. 1070, emphasis added) when given the opportunity to do so.  Again, this is a far cry from the blanket, inverse relationship that Pink described.  A look at the limitations section of both papers highlights some additional concerns with banking on Pink’s hypotheses.

The rest of the talk wasn’t any more entertaining, but it was more accurate since Pink was just explicitly borrowing Seligman’s notions of explanatory style (and without so much as a hat tip to Bandura!) and any number of researchers/experts (Osborn, Amabile, Csikszentmihalyi, Fraley, etc. – not a single mention of any of them!) on the value of problem identification over problem solving.  In short, if you are going to go hear a speaker, you might as well skip Dan Pink and go hear the real thing.


Posted in Books & Reviews, Creative Problem Solving (CPS), Creativity and Self-Expression, Entrepreneurial, Idea Generation, Innovation, Marketing, Trends, Futurism, and Research