I attended a presentation last week by the brand strategy consultants Yellowwood on their latest whitepaper entitled “Transformative Innovation: An African Path to Success”. During the 1 hour presentation I was inspired by the following statement:

“South Africans come from a culture of authority.”

The more I think about it, the more I agree. Somehow I feel the majority of us in this country have this ingrained urge to always look for affirmation from someone higher up. Someone else must give us permission to venture out. Someone else needs to tell us we can try and that it is okay. Maybe it is because of this that I sense we are quick – even desperate – to give people authority. We hand it out too easily – to those with fancy titles, politicians, people with deep pockets, expensive shoes and old age. They know best. They can tell me where to go.

We wait for these “authorities” to give us permission before we take risks.

This is not a bad thing when we grow up. But it becomes an issue when we can’t liberate ourselves from it as adults. In my view this is a real issue in South Africa. Over reliance on authority has become a cultural phenomenon that goes way beyond the family and into the boardroom.

Large companies all over the world struggle to innovate, but somehow I see this as a particular challenge in our country – and in no small measure due to our thirst for authority. Here employees are waiting for the boss to tell them what to do. They are scared to experiment with new ideas, offer radical thought and challenge convention. The result, in my view, are companies bloated with sameness, blandness and group think. This in turn causes too many local companies to struggle to grow organically leaving them dependent on take-overs, joint ventures and mergers for that next boost in income.

In too many South African companies, real innovation is lacking because they follow a tip-toe approach driven by layers and layers of decision makers, each too scared to say “go for it!”. Eventually the decision cascades all the way to the boss for that final “all powerful” judgement. I have been involved in many such projects. It becomes a type of conformative experimentation.

Quite obviously this approach will not help in driving real fundamental innovation in the the world of work and career. True innovation cannot happen in this way. True innovation happens when people don’t feel as if they need to be guided every step of the way by some authority. True innovation happens when real decisions are made at line manager level – not CEO level. It happens when people are given the space to follow their gut, do what they truly believe in and take real chances.

True innovation doesn’t happen in an environment of reporting structures, authority and purchase orders. True innovation needs true freedom. Freedom to think. Dream. Experiment. Try. Fail. And start again.

Ultimately I think that true innovation happens when authority lacks but support prevails. Where layers fall flat and people team up!