By Andrea Fineman
“No matter what business you’re in, your business is the messy, human type.” So says Lea Simpson, a self-described “tech optimist” who works with big organizations to help make sense of the future and what to do about it. She’s worked with teams who are working to electrify rural clinics in Zimbabwe and connected rural schools in Nepal to the Internet via unused frequencies in the television broadcast spectrum. She’s also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands, including Nike and Warner Bros.
Working at the frontiers of technology, where stakeholders and environments don’t have the social, economic, or tech infrastructure of a Silicon Valley or a Seoul, Simpson has guided diverse teams toward important goals. Last year, she sat down to codify exactly what she’d seen among successful and unsuccessful innovation teams from her two-decade career.
“If these behaviors are so obvious, why aren’t we all nailing it?”
“I reached an underwhelming, ‘no-shit’ conclusion,” she said. “Turns out the very best teams know how to listen, share, learn, and build. After months of synthesis I got to a conclusion that felt as useful as a chocolate teapot, but then I thought about it some more.”
“If these behaviors are so obvious, why aren’t we all nailing it?” she thought. “That’s where it got interesting for me. You see, I think that we set out to behave in a certain way and have really great intentions for the most part, but our cultures often carry contradictions. Take for example the notion of a ‘learning culture’. We often talk about creating a learning culture, but also have little tolerance for people who seem to change their minds on the job, even though learning, by definition, is changing one’s mind.
“They grew so afraid of getting it wrong, they did nothing.”
“For instance, I worked with a loathsome bully once. She would tell people she wanted to build a learning culture, but when they made discoveries that suggested they might want to adapt their point of view, she’d vilify them as indecisive. This kind of mixed direction and misdirection left her teams impotent. They grew so afraid of getting it wrong, they did nothing.”
Simpson’s work culminated in a talk, which she’ll be sharing with the audience at our Service Experience Conference in October. Said Simpson, the talk “walks through the theories in social psychology, myths, legends, and current affairs that have helped me make sense of the traps and contradictions so we can get real about truly cultivating innovation mindsets to produce amazing work.”
She said, “Our industry’s pervasive platitudes deserve a closer look. Like ‘learning culture,’ there are many echoes of accepted wisdom that are taken as a given. The key to innovation mindsetting is, I believe, to get real about what we actually mean and how it translates into behavior.”
Since October of 2016, Simpson has been working for the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development on Frontier Technology Livestreaming, a three-year program designed to help the department apply frontier technologies to real challenges in development. It’s her first project in the public sector. “On the face of it, it seems a million miles away from the work I do with private sector clients. The thing that’s most surprised me is how similar it actually is. Our teams flourish and flounder for exactly the same reasons.” She went on: “Successful teams in the public and private sector are all capable of listening, learning, sharing, and building. Truly — beyond platitudes.”
When working on a project like Frontier Technology Livestreaming, “getting it right has the potential to change entire communities,” Simpson said. She stressed that technology and innovation must be “paired with the kinds of value only people can bring: taking care of one another, lifting each other up, chemistry, building bonds and sharing success.”