What makes certain expats innovative?

I was at the Harvard Business School’s Digital Initiative summit earlier today, and decided to attend a talk about creating innovation within large organizations. I’ve always worked in large news organizations, but often on innovative or non-mainstream projects. My professional independence has come with drawbacks and advantages. I loved the freedom I had working for CNN IBN, but I struggled to find guidance within the organization. (My bosses believed in me, but no one in my New Delhi office had built a digital media product before.)

For a while in late 2012, I considered doing consulting work with media outlets in change management, and I toyed with the idea of doing thesis research in organizational culture. So I was very interested in what the HBS Summit panel would have to say.

The session was led by Michael Maness (whom, by the way, I was surprised I hadn’t already met somewhere in Cambridge). He’s worked for the Knight Foundation, which automatically perked my journalist ears up (and it turns out he’s a fellow Northwestern grad). Maness started out talking about organizational network analysis, and he described the difference between energizers and de-energizers. He pointed out that change agents (energizers) were the most likely to get promoted rapidly within an organization, but they were also the most likely to leave. This observation mimics something that a relative of mine (who has headed large MNC’s internationally) told me once: “high potential employees are often also high maintenance.” (For organizations, it’s worth it to try and keep these innovators. Innovators, Maness said, build innovative teams. The members of these innovative teams then spread creativity within the larger organization – but this network effect only occurs if the original energizer stays at the company.)

HBS prof @MichaelTushman told the story of several heliophysicists at NASA, who were trying to find a way to predict potentially dangerous solar events. After twelve years, unable to come up with a solution, they posed the question as a challenge on the crowd-sourced innovation platform Innocentive. (Turns out the challenge description is still up.) They got several responses, eleven of which solved the problem. The winning solution, which had a prediction rate upwards of 80 per cent, came from a retired mechanical engineer. Tushman spun this as a story of the power of the crowd, but he also suggested that the reason incumbents fear change agents is because change challenges people’s sense of identity. For the scientists, it would have been very natural to wonder: what am I all about, if a random retired engineer can solve a problem in a few months that I’ve been working on for a decade?

The last speaker was Sarah Wills of GE, who talked about ways leaders can build scale around change. She advised innovators to make friends, to build consensus and networks. (This resonates with my own experience: when I was working in an innovative role in a large company, I needed friends and colleagues who were invested in my success.) Wills also talked about how hard it is to find meaningful metrics by which to measure how successful organizations have been at incorporating innovative workflows. The three speakers also suggested that it’s crucial for organizations to get all this right because we live in a time when disruption is the new normal, and agile and innovative companies will survive.

At the end they took questions. I asked,

We talk about “change agent” and “organizational cement” as if they’re dichotomous terms, but in fact I’ve observed that people can move along a spectrum. Many people, when brought into an innovative team, can become more creative. Have you noticed that as well, and if so, are there practices you’d recommend for nurturing the inner change agent in yourself and others?

Wills mentioned that according to their research, seniority didn’t have anything to do with change resistance. (Ie, an employee’s stage in her professional life cycle couldn’t predict whether or not she would be innovative) But Maness said something interesting. In his research, he said that he’d looked at how long it took people to arrive at what he called “divergent” solutions. He noticed that the people who reached those solutions fastest all had one thing in common: they had lived abroad. There was something about having to “reset cultural assumptions” that made people come up with creative ideas.

I’ve long wondered about this phenomenon. I spent five years in New Delhi, and along the way, I met a ton of other expatriates. Because we were friends, I’ve kept up with what the American expats did after returning to the United States. Almost without exception, this self-selected cohort has gone on to do extraordinary things. In fact, the American expats I knew in Delhi have turned out to be incredible self-starters, even after returning to the US.

At the time, I thought that this success was a correlation, not a causation.  I figured ambitious people would be more likely to seek out the challenge of living abroad. More resilient people would be more likely to stick it out when the going got tough. And ambition and resilience are really the most essential factors in achieving any kind of “success,” particularly in a world marked by disruption.

But it occurs to me that maybe my initial explanation isn’t the entire story. What if there is a causation element? I lived abroad for five years, which is a really long time even by most expats’ measure. But why did I do it?  And more importantly, how? I arrived in India with no job offer, no friends, no real language experience, and no prior experience living in the country. I was buffeted by the daily and overwhelming challenge of finding myself in a world I didn’t understand. And so, as I learned to do things for myself, I felt a sense of achievement and satisfaction that few experiences in my life had yielded. I can explain that. But what if living internationally – and working internationally – taught me something that I can’t explain? What if it changed the way that I look at change and challenge? By the time I left India, I’d written for a national newspaper (scoring regular front-page stories), started a grassroots media group, and had whole teams reporting to me. By any measure, my time in India was a huge success. But it didn’t have to go that way. In fact, there were many moments (particularly when I was switching jobs, or on one memorable occasion when my house caught fire) when I earnestly thought about packing up and leaving. When I think about my time in India, I realize that one of the things I relish about the experience is that somewhere along the way (incrementally,, and with every moment that passed and I moved forward), I changed my definition of what was possible.

Now, I don’t think that all would-be leaders should up and move to a developing country (actually, I do, but for other reasons). Obviously, people learn from challenges in different ways. Different opportunities yield different adaptations. Interestingly, the remarkably innovative expats I know (and again, keep in mind that I have incredibly biased reasons for remembering this sample) are all people who didn’t just move to India. They absorbed the country while living there: they sought opportunities to engage more deeply, to immerse themselves in the things they didn’t understand. They were deeply, almost obsessively, attracted to the challenge of the unfamiliar. They were also willing to suspend their expectations of how systems should operate, if that’s what was needed to get ahead.

On the other hand, I met expats who didn’t crave this deep level of knowledge and immersion. I met people who tolerated India’s unfamiliarity, but who didn’t want to know it. They were happy to stay within familiar contexts, relationships and worldviews.

Of course, I’m sure there are tons of failed expats out there also, and I’m probably just forgetting about them. And retro-fitting anecdotal stories to a thesis offered at a single entrepreneurship conference is not a scientific method. But I would be intrigued to see more research on this hypothesis (I don’t see a lot of it now.) It would be interesting to look at how different people process the experience of transplantation, and what that can teach us about managing and sustaining change within organizations. When I moved to India, I became part of a wave of second-generation Indian-Americans migrating to the country in search of “opportunity.” It would be worthwhile, I think, to understand what inspired so many educated young Americans to seek opportunities overseas, and what unique skills and knowledge they might bring back with them when they return.

*Unrelated, but also interesting: Many of my friends were Indians who had spent large chunks of time living outside of India. It would also be interesting to interview this cohort to see what they learned internationally, and how the international experience differs for different groups.

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