Want to innovate? Aim for The Dangerous Edge. (Episode 137)

Want to innovate? Aim for The Dangerous Edge. (Episode 137)

Interview with Dr. Johan S. Roos, Chief Academic Officer & Professor at Hult International Business School.

When LEGO Serious Play was introduced in the late 1990s as a way to enable managers to describe, create and challenge their views on their business, the process was met with scorn, skepticism, and doubt.

Having managers “play” and play with LEGO bricks was just not seen as professional.

Today, 25 years later, tens of thousands of managers have gone through Serious Play workshops and there are over 3000 LEGO Serious Play facilitators training thousands of leaders and educators each year. The method is no longer controversial, but at the Millennium shift it was brave to launch a concept that had serious leaders play with kids’ plastic bricks.

The driving co-creator of LEGO Serious Play was Dr. Johan S. Roos who was then at IMD in Switzerland. Today he is Chief Academic Officer & Professor at Hult International Business School based in London.

He calls the mindset they used to launch LEGO Serious Play for being on “The Dangerous Edge”. And he is using the same mindset at Hult.

Johan: “Here at Hult, we aim to be just as normal as is acceptable.”

The world of higher education is filled with written and unwritten rules for how things “are done”. The focus at most universities is about structure and stability. Dr. Roos and his team at Hult want to challenge that in as many ways as possible – without crossing the line into the unacceptable.

To be able to get accredited by the right institutions and be ranked as a top learning institution (which Hult gradually is achieving) you have to play by the rules, but Hult tries to stay right on the edge of the acceptable.

Or as Dr. Roos likes to call it: “Staying at the Dangerous Edge”.

Dangerous because if you go too far, you risk a lot.

But stay on the right side of the edge and you have so much to gain – because innovation happens when you push, challenge and confront the status quo.

At Hult they have, for example, come up with novel ways of doing academic research.

Dr. Roos: “Unlike most peer institutions, Hult does not organise faculty and research into traditional disciplines nor semi-autonomous research centres. Instead, we organise research activities into dynamic ‘intellectual ecosystems’ that we call Impact Labs. These labs develop not only concepts and theoretical models but also practical solutions applicable to leadership and organisations. This pragmatic approach to research is captured by the term ‘Impact Research’.”

For many academic institutions this approach is seen as unorthodox, unusual or plain weird. But at Hult they are pushing it as a more effective and valuable way of turning academic research into something that brings value to the world.

When asked how to think to have a mindset of aiming for the Dangerous Edge, Dr. Roos gave the following insight:

1) “Stay in orbit.”

A satellite has left Earth but is still connected to the planet. The Dangerous Edge is about releasing yourself from the gravity of the acceptable while avoiding to drift away into the void of irrelevance.

The approach for how to think can be summarised in the phrase: ““push as far as possible – but not further.”

2) Use The Energy of Change.

When a change is happening, in a person, an industry or in society an energy is created. Think of the energy around AI that the world is experiencing at the moment, or the energy around the Internet in the end of the 20th century.

This energy needs to be put to use.

At Hult they created workshops, strategy groups and learning sessions about generative AI already in January 2023 to quickly understand how Gen AI could change higher education, and prepare faculty and students accordingly.

Dr. Roos: “It’s a matter of timing. You need to get enough internal people excited about an external energy of change that there is momentum to want to change before everyone else.”

3) Question the deep structures, norms, values and assumptions.

The world is being held back by existing ways of doing things that people take for granted. Aiming for the dangerous edge is all about being able to question these structures. To see beyond. And to go beyond.

It’s important to understand that the purpose of aiming for the dangerous edge is not to provoke. People might very well BE provoked, but the aim is not that. The aim is to challenge the acceptable.

It’s also important to understand that aiming for the dangerous edge is not about “going out of your comfort zone”. It will most likely MEAN that you will, but often when someone goes outside of their comfort zone no external entity is challenged. The dangerous edge is not about just pushing yourself, but to push an industry, a society, even the world.

Regardless if it’s using Zoom in education before it was generally accepted (as Hult did) or if it’s about creating a board game to let leaders challenge their views on gender issues in business (as Dr. Roos has done) it’s clear that we need more people like Dr. Roos. People who dare to aim for the dangerous edge.

Because, yes, that’s where culture clashes happens, that’s where friction occurs, and that is where most people become uncomfortable. But it’s also there that brilliant, marvellous and amazing innovation happens.

So aim to be just within the borders of that which is acceptable.

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