How Having a Dinosaur in Your Corner Can Help With Innovation

It’s quite common for those of us on the pointy end of Government 2.0, innovation, agile and open source/open data and similar ‘progressive’ thinking to refer to people who seem reluctant and risk-averse as ‘dinosaurs’.

The terminology crosses the government/corporate divide – indeed I’m hearing it now more often in reference to senior management in large Australian companies than in government agencies.

Sometimes it’s used as a term of affection, sometimes in derision – but there’s always the implication that the designated ‘dinosaur’ is out-of-touch, missing opportunities and holding back their organisation.

However if you take a step back and think about it a little more, many supposed ‘dinosaurs’ are actually quite progressive in their thinking and activities. They may simply have a different role in the workplace, with different workplace priorities and key performance indicators.

Or they may simply be a product of different life experiences – grown up in an age when media was less complex and the internet was limited to academic institutions.

Sometimes all the ‘dinosaurs’ need to transform their thinking is a clear business case couched in terms they understand, or a life experience which makes them realise the world has changed.

Indeed I can think of one extremely senior Australian public servant who transformed their thinking after observing how their children used Facebook to organise a successful family gathering – realising social media wasn’t just about sharing lunch images, but had real value as a tool for marshalling support and spreading information.

Other ‘dinosaurs’, however, can be destructive – holding back their organisations to the point where they miss large opportunities or damage organisational reputation and brand. I’ve seen this numerous times – to the extent where Ministers have been harmed by the decisions of senior public servants.

There’s also a group of supposed ‘dinosaurs’ that aren’t dinosaurs at all. They’re impersonating dinosaurs for role or camouflage reasons – people who prefer to influence from inside a group, rather than from the outside.

So how can progressive thinkers (‘mammals’?) help to tell which dinosaurs are which? How can they help dinosaurs evolve?

One particular strategy that helps is to have a dinosaur on your side – preferably a large one with substantial presence and influence.

If you can identify someone who is simply wearing a dinosaur suit for workplace purposes, rather than being a true dyed-in-the-scale dinosaur, you’ve got a significant opportunity to enlist that person to begin influencing from within. Provided that person is seen as another dinosaur (albeit a slightly unusual one), they can often significantly influence an organisation’s agenda as a champion for innovation, open data, or whatever the progressive workplace cause might be.

Alternatively if you can find a dinosaur who is purely driven by their role or KPIs, identify how to match your business case for moving forward with their workplace goals. if you can align a progressive approach with their priorities you will find they quickly shift their position – even take ownership of the idea – as they can see the benefit in personal and professional terms.

However if you find that all your dinosaurs are true dinosaurs – unable and unwilling to change, even when the business case is strong – consider your options.

You could bring in supposed dinosaurs from other organisations that they trust and respect, to show them the error of their ways.

You could wait for an extinction event, their retirement, replacement or, unfortunately, a serious event which proves their decisions were wrong.

Or you can seek a new habitat – changing roles or workplaces to find one where there is more room for change.

Just always keep in mind that not all dinosaurs are really dinosaurs (just as not everyone claiming to be a progressive workplace thinker is one), indeed many think themselves quite progressive.

And keep in mind that having your own dinosaur in the corner is far more effective than simply throwing stones.

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