Learning from Homer on how to resist the Sirens of corporate innovation

innovation Aug 29, 2023
Written by Todd Dunn

In Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew must sail past the land of the Sirens. The Sirens looked like beautiful women, and they sang a song so compelling and bewitching that sailors would be irresistibly drawn toward them. When sailors approached the sound, they would wreck their ships on the rocky coast and perish.  Odysseus knew the danger ahead and crafted a clever plan to avoid this fate for his ship and crew. He ordered his men to fill their ears with beeswax so they could not hear the Sirens’ call.    

However, Odysseus didn’t follow his own orders because he wanted to hear the beautiful song himself.  He knew that he would be tempted to steer the ship toward the rocks, so he instructed his crew to tie him to the mast of the ship and told them to not set him free or change course until the ship was in the clear, no matter what. Despite his appetite for risk and adventure, Odysseus was a leader who valued his team and with these instructions he made it safe for them to protect the ship!  

In recently reading this story, it caused me to think about an innovation parallel. The ship in this analogy is the company. The ship must head to a destination (a vision) and must have a plan to get there (a strategy). In addition, the ship needs a way to harness the wind (well-defined problems or opportunities of significance.) To do this it needs a sail, which I think is an innovation system that serves to harness the problems or opportunities identified by teammates. 

How often do we as leaders get lured in by the Sirens of today whether they are a shiny startup, a new venture promising to change the world, or even a conference or a collective promising to do great things? I am not offering that we shouldn’t spend some of our time listening to the song. What I am offering is that innovation leaders must understand the waters and create systems to avoid getting too “enchanted” by bright-shiny objects. If there is a common complaint from operators about many of us with “innovation” in our titles, it is that too many of us get distracted by the Sirens. 

As leaders we must tie ourselves to the mast just like Odysseus did. In this metaphor, the mast is a system. The mast on a boat is clear and understood, and an innovation and transformation system should be as well.  It must have an articulated innovation performance model and then the language, tools, methods, and expected behaviors for an organization to follow.  As leaders, we must bind ourselves to a system that is problem- or opportunity- driven. That system must diagnose before it prescribes and use the scientific method approach to drive evidence-based decisions to invest more time and money!  It must be a learning system.  It must help inform the question, “What do we need to learn before we invest more time and money?” 

A bold and authentic leader must be willing, like Odysseus, to commit to the mast of evidenced-based innovation and an innovation performance model. They must make it psychologically-safe for their team to hold them accountable to the mast of that evidence-based transformation system. They can listen to the music but must adhere to the system that produces sound business evidence toward a business model that is desirable, feasible, viable and adaptable.  

We must be bold enough, like Odysseus, but then humble enough to agree to a system and then let integrity keep us committed to it. Those who chase the Sirens of today often end up throwing their teammates, company and the communities who rely on them to the rocks. We can and must do better by adopting an innovation system, a sail that catches the wind and propels us all forward!!

Written by Todd Dunn

Originally posted