A Christmas Carol as a Parable for Innovation
Dickens’ story is understandably a classic. It’s one I’ve revisited, in one form or another, for each of the 40-something Christmases I’ve celebrated. This year, though, I’m seeing it with new eyes.
My 9-year-old, being if not the youngest (although very nearly) the smallest, played Tiny Tim. Perhaps that was the reason I paid special attention to Tiny Tim’s role in the miser Scrooge’s conversion.
This year, finally, it strikes me that A Christmas Carol is a parable for the plight of innovation within organizations. We meet Scrooge when he is hard at work, as he always is: “ on Christmas Eve – old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house,” the narrator recounts.
We know money in hand is very much his prime concern. When the ghost of his late business partner Jacob Marley visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve, we with Scrooge learn: “‘It is required of every man,’ the Ghost returned, ‘that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness![…]My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house—mark me!—in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!’”
I’m struck by the parallel between Marley and Scrooge’s preoccuaption (in life) and the financial culture defining commercial success in simply financial terms. In a recent talk at the RSA in London, Harvard Business School’s Professor Clayton Christensen made the point about the rise (through the efforts of his generation of executives and business studies academics) of the financial culture.
Christensen said (according to my notes): “Spreadsheets made numbers the substance of management. If you watch managers at work, you’d think they ship numbers. The only virtue of numbers is they provide a common language. But it’s a terrible language when you work with anything of substance.”
Christensen makes the point in the context of innovation. Because the financial culture that has come to dominate – even define – business creates an agenda for innovation that directs energies to efficiency innovations. Efficiency innovations have the advantage of returning more of capital’s investment. They do not, necessarily, lead to stable commercial operations because inherent in efficient innovations is job reduction – and this leads to a profitable business at odds with sustainable communities. Nor do efficiency innovations necessarily improve the day-to-day lives of people, for greater good is achieved by empowering innovations (which transform complicated, rare goods for the few into simpler, more easily available goods for the many) or sustainable innovations (which replace old goods for new, often higher performing or less damanging goods).
Because of his preoccupation with money, Scrooge seems a man imbued in the financial culture. One can easily imagined him endorsing only efficiency innovations, and saying “Humbug” to better or more accessible products. But the “Humbug” response is transformed, through the long night of visitations Ebenezer Scrooge endures.
First comes Christmas Past, to show the miser how high the price truly was of his adoration of mere money. It cost him his betrothed.
Then comes Christmas Present, a jolly soul.
As Christmas Eve wears on, this spirit begins to age so much that even the miser Scrooge notices. As the clock strikes midnight, so that Christmas Eve cedes to 25 December, the spirit reveals to Scrooge two waifs cowering beneath his splendid robes: The narrator tells us: “They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing.”
The spirit of Christmas Present tells Scrooge: these children are Ignorance and Want. And to the miser, they spell Doom.
Now ignorance takes many forms. But one most relevant to innovation is that ignorance of changing times and tides. That was the ignorance that doomed Kodak, who held within its archives the first digital camera (invented first in 1975, and then shelved) and enough scientific knowledge about collagens to revolutionize skincare – a business opportunity Kodak failed to notice, while Fuji was busy seeing the adjacencies and acquiring cosmetics firms.
The last of the Christmas visitors to come to Ebenezer Scrooge is the spirit of Christmas Future. The spirit has no face, and does not speak. But his message reads loud and clear. Without transformation, Scrooge’s life is nothing to remember. There is no legacy. Again, in innovation, it’s hard not to think of Kodak.
But what of the change of heart Ebenezer Scrooge experiences after his long night of visitations? The change is to embrace life – and the meanings it gives beyond the merely financial.
Says Scrooge to his faithful employee Bob Cratchit, whom he visits at home on Christmas Day: “Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend,” said Scrooge, “I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore,” he continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again: “and therefore I am about to raise your salary!” Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler.
He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it; holding him; and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat. “A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”
This isn’t merely a move to engage a valuable employee. The promise preserved by Scrooge’s change of heart and his new-found commitment is a promise of guardianship over the most vulnerable character we meet, the one played (beautifully, says the proud stage mom) by my daughter: Tiny Tim.
And who, in this reading of A Christmas Carol, does Tiny Tim stand for? Why all the early stage ideas too easily dismissed, overlooked and (in deed or through inaction) killed off by a senior leadership too obsessed (as was Scrooge himself) by business as usual.
Tiny Tim is novelty. Tiny Tim is the kind of breakthrough thinking upon which our future, in a sense, depends. But he is also the novelty that needs time and nurturing to grow into a contributing member of the company family.
When Tiny Tim says, “God bless us, every one” we can hear him as saying: cherish us, however fragile or fit we are, for together, we are your future.
Unlike Scrooge, we don’t have the benefit of a phantom from the future to show us what will come. We need our Tiny Tims, a great many of them, growing in readiness for whichever future may in fact arise.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol; The original manuscript. Illustrated by John Leech. Published Project Gutenberg. Release Date: October 30, 2009 [EBook #30368]. Accessed December 24, 2013.
Christensen, Clayton. “The Capitalist’s Dilemma.” Recorded Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Commerce and Manufacture, London, UK. September 9, 2013. Available online: https://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/2013/the-capitalists-dilemma
image credit: wearerevchurch.com
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Kate Hammer is a joint founder of KILN, working with large-scale companies in the USA and Australia to transform their internal innovation processes. Kate works as a business storyteller. In 2012, she created StoryFORMs to help others articulate their commercial & organisational stories. Kate offers workshops & 1:1 coaching.
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