Sean Donovan
Aug 26, 2020

If you want to solve a 400-year-old problem, be naïve

Too many aspects of our organisational structures require compliance. But breakthroughs come from looking at things free from conventions, says TBWA's Asia president.

If you want to solve a 400-year-old problem, be naïve

The global horseracing industry has an annual estimated value of several hundred billion dollars. Fittingly, the 'sport of kings' has, at its heart, looked towards bloodline as both a predictor of success and for solutions to problems. Almost all of the world’s half a million thoroughbreds are descendants of only 28 horses born between 300 and 400 years ago. But depending on pedigree, including the advances offered to it through the science of molecular genetics, wasn’t able to solve one of the most common, and arguably the costliest, problems in the sport—lameness.

That fell to a former computer scientist with a PhD in pattern recognition, educated many miles away from the rarefied world of the stud and track. Caused by the pressure horses exert on limbs when galloping, lameness is both difficult to precisely diagnose and to treat. The conventional method of diagnosis, by expert eye, has limited effect.

Enter Dr. Thilo Pfau. Drawing on his background in the unrelated field of pattern recognition he had the idea of using motion sensors—the kind Hollywood studios attach to humans to track movement and make animated movies more realistic—to identify the movement patterns of horses and spot exceptions. Thereby not only accurately diagnosing precisely where the lameness occured, but how to treat it as well. Thus 400 years of conventional thinking was disrupted by the power of naivety.

People are our greatest asset. But that phrase sometimes rings hollow. A cliché. Because too many companies throw it out as a statement of fact only, rather than an organising principle. People need an enabling environment to thrive and grow. It’s one thing to recruit the best people. It’s another thing entirely to recruit them into an organisation that is purposeful in its structure to learn from them, nurture them and unleash them.

In 1990 Rebecca Henderson and Kim B. Clark published a paper on the role organisations play in their own failure to adopt innovation and change. In essence, their argument was that organisations don’t fail to innovate because new ideas are too radical. They fail because the new idea is expected to germinate within the current organisational structure. The legacy nature of that structure eventually asserts itself and smothers the idea with historic thoughts, systems, and process eventually regaining control.

Too many organisations are structured in a way that results in things like naive thought being condemned as a weakness to be guarded against. Siloed function and layers of rank are constructed to protect the organisation from this threat. Does someone’s newness or age dictate the audibility of their ideas? Or worse still, deny them the right to even speak? Or what about the job title? Is it being used to convey a sense of what someone’s role is? Or is it being used to tell them what they don’t do? Or rather, what they’re not allowed to do? One of the surest ways to smother ideas is to hire for talent and contract for job title, dimming the light of why you wanted somebody on your team in the first place.

Too many aspects of the organisational structure of old seek compliance. Breakthroughs come from looking at things free from the shackles of conventions that come from conditioning. We need more voices not less. Inexperience viewed as an opportunity to agitate thinking not something that hasn’t earned a voice yet. Ideas that are harvested laterally not insulated within silos. We need more disruption, not compliance, fuelled by the alchemy of naivety. That’s how 400-year-old, multibillion-dollar problems are solved.

Sean Donovan is president of TBWA Asia.

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