Innovation Handmaids

What "The Handmaid's Tale" can teach us about innovation and the human spirit.

Posted Jun 18, 2017

Publicity still from MGM
Source: Publicity still from MGM

The television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale has certainly made its mark, as nearly every reviewer has commented on its surreal timeliness. If you haven’t seen it yet on Hulu, it’s a story about the entire world suffering mass infertility. A coup balkanizes a piece of America into the fictional Republic of Gilead, in which the government exploits xenophobia to crush dissent, assigns a machine gun-bearing goon at every street corner, and extrapolates fake news to its Orwellian conclusion.

In the narrative, the ruling class in this nightmare world simply takes what it wants and arranges to have the most valuable and scarce resource—fertile women—assigned to them as handmaids. Of course, to justify the complete abrogation of women’s rights, they declare it God’s will, based on the biblical precedent of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaids who bore sons for the master. And so this modern retelling of droit du seigneur unfolds.

Now, what does this have to do with innovation?

Before I extrapolate from procreativity to business creativity, it’s important to stress that the importance of this remarkable work as a feminist statement should not be diluted by allegory. When watching the series, remember that everything they do to women in this story–­–from not being allowed to drive, to not being allowed to own property, to state-sanctioned rape, to cliterectomy, to the removal of an eye as punishment––every single one of these dehumanizing acts and atrocities are right now being perpetrated on women by men without remorse. When this is realized, that all of this is actually happening today, the profound impact of the story becomes almost overwhelming.

With that said, let’s think about what this TV series can teach us about technology innovation. Is there a moral of this dystopian tale for innovators? What lessons can we learn? Is there a connection between reproductive rights for women and moral rights for creators?

To seek meaning, we must delve into the heroine’s journey, which actually addresses the entire human condition. In doing so, we find that the tale is, in many ways, universal and applicable to gender, race, sexual identity, creativity, property and existential meaning.

Lessons for Innovators

The Handmaid’s Tale can offer innovators in the digital age a number of powerful lessons. First and foremost, it teaches that we must be grateful for every liberty we enjoy, and must have the courage to do whatever it takes to keep them. Early in the heroine’s journey, it’s illustrated that resisting the patriarchal dictatorship would be met with horrendous punishment, from electric cattle prods to surgical punishment, to threats against her child, to public hangings. Nevertheless, Offred, the heroine, persists.

Publicity still © 2017 MGM
Source: Publicity still © 2017 MGM

She fights back in every way she can, from attempting escape to volunteering to support the resistance, to secretly loving someone of her own choosing, to refusing to participate in a public execution by stoning…by being the first to drop the killing stone. With a machine gun aimed at her back.

In my early days as an innovation consultant, I would listen to what people would say about their jobs, to figure out why management kept lamenting, “My employees are just not innovative enough!” At one company, I interviewed an admin at a design firm who told me that at a brainstorming, where she was asked to join but realized it was just to take notes, the managers were in charge of coming up with solutions. However, she came up with an absolutely killer idea and was unable to hold back from sharing it, and the general manager remarked, “That’s the best idea of the day! However, in order for us to impress the customer and win the project, I’m going to present that idea as mine, because they won’t respect the idea as much if it came from an admin.”

Well, what ensued is that this admin was promised a promotion...eventually. So until then, she really tried to impress the boss––who was happy to co-opt as many ideas as she offered without attribution, but when it was time to lay off some people, he put her on the list of people to downsize. More likely, he laid her off to ease his conscience. But the shame is that she developed a lifelong self-defeating attitude that she’d never be acknowledged for her creativity, so why try? This story broke my heart.

In many ways, this is just like Gilead. This company decided to abrogate the creative “moral” rights of its employees, and brazenly “took what it wanted” and declared not only ownership, but inventorship, of the intellectual property birthed. And if you resist, management accuses you of not being a “team player,” or worse, a troublemaker. Once you’re labeled an organizational dissident, you won’t make the cut the next time layoffs are needed or passed over when promotions are ladled out to "the team players." By the way, you can mention this story, the next time your boss asks your permission to appropriate your idea and “take one for the team."

If your gift is your creativity, then you must be persistent. You must stick to your principles and refuse to give into the dominant paradigm, no matter how much easier it is to give in or give up or get along. When I was a child, the very first saying my father taught me was: “宁为玉碎,不为瓦全.” (This is how you say it: nìng wéi yù suì , bù wéi wǎ quán.) This translates roughly, to “It is better to break as jade than live an entire life as a roof tile." Being a roof tile means to behave, to serve your purpose, to fit in your place. But it isn’t easy to be a maverick, it takes guts. Like the success guru Jack Canfield says, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

The moral rights inherent in our creativity are as basic as any other human birthright. To have our ideas taken from us is morally equivalent to the abrogation of reproductive or sexual rights. I know I probably sound a bit like an Ayn Rand fanatic right now, but it’s vital to see that both creative and procreative rights are required to assure a vital and sustainable society. If either fail, humanity would eventually collapse and decay like a withering plant.

So let me ask—how many of us end up selling our innovative potential to others, let bosses take advantage of us, work on projects that are simply not aligned with our life goals and visions? How many of us let our managers steal our ideas and take credit for them? How many of us hold ourselves back from reaching our true creative potential? How many should change our names to Ofxerox or Ofcsc?

Managers at organizations who feel justified in abrogating moral rights of invention usually do so with pretty lame excuses. The aforementioned excuse, “The customer will respect the idea more if it came from senior management” is easily rebutted. Consider this: how much more impactful to the client would it be if the CEO said, “You know, our admin came up with a remarkable idea that we’d like to share with you.” It would reflect positively on the organization, because if a lowly intern could come up with a killer idea... wow, what an amazing innovation culture! Especially if that manager felt challenged to create an even better idea to justify his salary. How would the culture change if everyone at a company truly believe that you really could rise, if you unleashed your creativity and gave it your best?

Here’s one more illustrative example to share. A couple of years ago, I ran an innovation assessment for an Indian company that wasn’t living up to its innovation potential. During the ethnographic interview process, they sent us only senior tech people, and I kept begging HR to send us some admins, customer service reps and QA engineers. It wasn’t easy, because HR wanted a “good report”—they didn’t realize that we needed to identify the core cultural inhibitors of innovation.

Eventually, they did send us some admins and secretaries, and one was notable—she didn’t participate in the mandatory idea contest. When I asked her why, she said it was because she thought she wasn't smart enough. So I asked what the prize was, and she said, “They were giving away an iPad.” I asked if that was motivating to her, and she said, “No, I already have one. Besides, I figured someone from the tech department would win.” Then I said, “What do you think if I could talk your CEO into giving away something like…a free college education for your child?”

She stopped breathing. She got this really serious look on her face and asked, “Is that actually possible?” I replied, “This is what I’m going to recommend," and I explained that I would tell the CEO that they weren't understanding what really mattered to the employees, what could truly engage and motivate them. "Would this prize motivate you? Would you participate in the contest if there was a remote chance of something that could be so transformative?” She replied, “Not only would I participate, I would get my whole family to work with me to come up with the best idea ever so I could win!”

Wow. That was step one. Now step two. I then told her that she had five minutes to come up with the best idea of her life, and I'd tell the CEO. She broke into a sweat, wondering if she were smart enough but then not caring if she wasn’t, and I could see she was pushing herself to rise to a higher level of creativity, and in a couple of minutes, she came up with a really great idea. Then she asked meekly, “Is this a good idea?” I assured her that it was a terrific idea, and told her I’d relay this idea to the CEO with full attribution. Then several minutes later, when she was leaving, she said, “Wait, I have another idea!” She related an even better one, and before she left, she remarked, “Oh my god, I'm an innovator!” The genie was uncorked.

Through many consulting engagements I have finally begun to understand innovation culture. What I’ve learned is that great ideas can come from anywhere, from anyone, because creativity is a human birthright. However, it requires for management to really understand leadership, and find the way to engage their employees fully, to motivate them to unlock their core creativity to benefit society.

The Deeper Lesson

There’s another lesson from the tale, and it’s a simple one: Innovative spirit should always strive to empower utopian, rather than dystopian, visions of the world. Technology is neutral and can be used for either good or evil. Take for example, drones. You can use them to create beautiful motion pictures, or you can arm them and create Skynet. Or consider robots, AI, 3D printing, traffic cams, whatever. In every case, we need to tilt the table toward positive life affirming application.

There are five “mega-threats” that endanger humanity—war, rankism, poverty, ignorance and the limitations of a finite planet. And so, your innovative potential should aim to help lift humanity to a higher level, toward peace and harmony, equality and egalitarianism, dignity for every human being and respect for every living being, accelerated learning and education so we can survive the coming robotics revolution, and better stewardship of our planet. [About rankism, see Dr. Robert Fuller's excellent explanation of the term.]

To put it in simpler terms: don’t do bad things! The obvious “bad things” are things like genocide or concentration camps. But not so obvious are little atrocities, which are being perpetuated every day in companies all over the Silicon Valley. Just google “Uber toxic culture," “Tesla sexual harassment,” or “Ellen Pao” to see what I mean. Another datapoint: Lots of little acts of subtle racism are adding up to a situation where 60 percent of the tech workers in Silicon Valley are white males, whereas African-Americans comprise 2 percent, Latinos around 1 percent, and women in the 25 percent range. 

I’ll share a personal experience about subtle racism in Silicon Valley: A long time ago when I was young and happily pitching venture capitalists, I presented to a “blue blood” VC––my term for a fund where every general partner is a white male––which seemed to go just fine. A couple of days later, I received an email from an anonymous email account, containing an attachment. It was an email from the associate who was working with me to the senior partners, in which he jokingly referred to me as “Chairman Ma” and other racist terms, and intimated that he didn’t want to invest in our company––ostensibly because I wasn’t “their kind of people”––but would be happy to bring me back to present to the managing partners, so they could “pick my brain” about this emerging trend. Ergo, to steal some of my ideas to give to their portfolio companies.

Clearly, some admin there was a “disgruntled leaker” and surreptitiously sent me the email to warn me. When that associate called to invite me to present to the managing partners, I naturally declined. He was flabbergasted that I’d decline the invitation from such an eminent firm, and his true colors came through. He was clearly a “legacy hire,” and intimated that it would be an honor for me just to meet the partners, and he could not understand how I could possibly decline. So I replied, “I could never work with a firm that would allow anyone to send an email in which someone called me ‘Chairman Ma.' This is racism, clear and simple, and I cannot condone such behavior.”

The associate was suddenly deathly quiet, so I waited, letting him stew. After a half minute of silence, he figured out that the email was leaked, and ran through the likely scenarios that could ensue most likely ending with his dismissal, and he blurted, “I was just joking!” I told him that I’d never out him (not my style), and to tell his management that other investors were interested so we were going with a competitor, but not to call back. I figured that he’d never admit this lapse to the senior partners, so the whistleblower was probably safe. And I hung up.

For the next two weeks, this guy then begged me every day by email to “have a drink” with him, and you know, share some bro culture. I relented and met him for a drink, and pretty much the first words out of his mouth were “Some of my best friends are Chinese!” However, when he let down his defenses, he shared that during that call, his entire life passed before his eyes, and he saw himself cast out of the VC industry. I assured him I’d never out him personally, and he promised never to do anything like that again. And that was the last I heard of him, and I've never shared this story before. And so, I challenge this VC to publicly admit his act of subtle racism, and share with us how he subsequently lived a life that fought against it. This is a chance to share you how you turned your life around.

Anyway, to this day, I have silently required that venture firms I work with demonstrate meaningful diversity on the senior team. Life's too short to enable subtle racism or intolerance in any way, whether it's overt or subtle, no matter how much money is being offered.

You see, “Don’t do bad things” can really only be applied on a personal level––when you decide who to hire, when you deal with people who report to you, when you receive a subtly racist email and don’t immediately tell the guy to cut it out. Each of these decisions are just a tad easier or less painful or scary if you don't do the right thing. But after a lifetime, these tiny little moral failures add up. So whether you’re a white male patriarch or an arrogant tech genius, it's vital to become aware of the possibility of a subconscious attitude of exclusivity, a blindspot that supports a tacit sense of entitlement. Remember: No one is "better" than everyone else, and every single human being deserves dignity.

If you are guilty of such micro-transgressions and want to change your life, you need to step up and learn what leadership is really all about. It means to strive to evolve personally, and at the same time, to pledge your commitment toward bringing humanity to a higher level. It could start with something as simple as picking up that piece of trash on the beach. Or taking a chance and recognizing every employee's innate capacity to innovate. Or standing up to subtle racists. This is because the deeper lesson of the tale is that it is impossible to extinguish the human spirit, which is expressed not only by the courage to have a child, but by the ingenuity to invent a wheel or a mobile app or a re-usable rocket.

This innately human capacity to invent and create amazing things, which propels humanity boldly into the future, really is universal. Some kid in a ghetto could build a robot that beats MIT's. Some poverty stricken child in Africa could someday end up building a windmill out of garbage parts. Some admin could come up with a killer idea that would lift your company to the next level. People and departments that have been given up for dead in their organizations, once conditions change and they feel there is hope for acknowledgment, will find new energy to become great innovators. All that is needed is true leadership...from you.

Publicity still © 2017 MGM
Source: Publicity still © 2017 MGM

So don’t let your workplace become the innovation equivalent of the Republic of Gilead. Join the resistance, and strive to create a more innovative and inclusive culture that nurtures and celebrates creativity, caring, diversity, honor, integrity, and hope. Be a living example to others, by speaking up when you see subtle racism or sexism, by becoming more resourceful and imaginative, by becoming more open-hearted, by giving up negativity, by believing that it’s possible to do the impossible. Show the courage to do the right thing at every turn, at every opportunity, at every fork in the road.

Every moment holds a chance for you to drop the killing stone and to become your own revolution.

A final note: Thank you Ms. Atwood for creating such a powerful and inspiring story to share with the world.

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