Standing before the dark, glistening dionite obelisk in The Louvre all those years ago, I wondered how long this particular game-changing innovation had taken from inspiration to execution.
The Vision Statement underpinning Babylon’s Chairman and CEO’s innovation was succinct: “Establish Justice.” His mission, ambitious, “Enlighten the land to further the well-being of mankind.” The values statement unequivocal: “The strong shall not injure the weak.”
Executive SummaryThe leaders who personally—and publicly—create conditions of trust, communication and collaboration are carrying out the principles of Babylon’s King Hammurabi, and creating the conditions for innovation in the modern insurance world, according to Karen Morris, a specialist in innovation strategy and execution
The purposeful Hammurabi, innovator and leader, knew something about getting his message across. Moreover, it was unambiguously his. The King took explicit personal ownership of his strategic intent and of the detailed tactical provisions supporting it.
Hammurabi put it in writing—a breakthrough, almost unprecedented innovation. He put it, creatively, in Akkadian—an ordinary language almost everyone could understand. He put it in public on an (NBA) human-sized stone stele 7 feet 4 inches tall, for all stakeholders to see with an unambiguous affirmation, he puts his picture on it. Even more compelling, the picture told the story behind the new phenomenon and explained its significance. The Babylonians, indeed almost the entire world had never before seen a written, codified expression of laws.
Hammurabi launched his innovation strategically: commensurate high-profile, clarity, impact, personal imprimatur and compelling narrative. And this without benefit of business school.
But here’s the really interesting part—for those of you who occasionally feel insurance is getting old. It is. Hammurabi’s Laws articulated the first formalized expression of an insurance policy.
(Editor’s Note: Several online encyclopedias describing the history of insurance refer to a basic form of insurance set forth in Hammurabi’s code, as does former Alexander & Alexander broker, John Bogardus, Jr., at the opening of his book, “Spreading the Risks: Insuring the American Experience.” Essentially, these sources describe a surcharge, or risk premium, charged in addition to interest on loans made to traders and caravan operators, allowing the loan to be forgiven in the event of cargo losses from natural events or thefts.)
Significantly, as with most innovations, Hammurabi was not creating a new, new concept of insurance; rather he was combining pre-existing practices into new form, functions and expression and doing so as a new stimulus to entrepreneurialism. Insurance as innovation, insurance as an incentive to innovate—and it was circa 1780 B.C.
Unhelpfully, perhaps, for those of us concerned professionally with the question “where do good ideas come from,” the “good ideas” in this world game-changing instance were— as vividly illustrated on the stone stele—hand-delivered to the King by Shamash, who was the Sun God with flame-throwing shoulders. Disappointingly for our industry’s idea generation efforts, Shamash has not been sighted in Bermuda, Hartford, Schaumburg, Lloyd’s or New York City for a while—a 3,700-year while.
Perhaps this explains the perpetual struggle our legacy industry sector and its self-described leaders encounter with sustainable, scalable, systemic innovation. A lack of divine inspiration?
That would, of course, be a misdiagnosis of the problem. The problem is not and never has been a dearth of ideas. The crux of the innovation challenge is encapsulated in the question Hammurabi asked himself and his advisors: what does it mean to be King and how does a King lead in a way that creates sustainable (long-term) equitable (principles-driven) new value? In his phrase: “bestow benefits for ever and ever.”
Simply put, how do leaders cause innovation?
Simply answered, leaders create the conditions for innovation. Innovation is frequently and aptly described as a leadership challenge. More significantly, it is a leader’s responsibility—the one important metric, KPI, King’s Personal Investment.
It is a simple equation. If an organization is not being led to innovate, it will not.
The Questioning Leader For Innovation
Innovation—as with any strategy— starts with questions and never ceases to be punctuated by questions. In no particular order, What, Who, When, Where, How and Why?
- What does innovation mean to our organization and what do we intend to cause?
- Who is/are the innovators and whom will be the innovations’ beneficiaries?
- When? First, are we organizationally ready to innovate; to belabor my Mesopotamian metaphor, are we planting in richly irrigated topsoil or in the middle of a drought?
- Where are we innovating— in product, service, brand, technology, organizational design, processes, etc.
The strategies, tactics and stories that will support the innovation will be different depending on the answers to those questions.
Most importantly, why are we innovating? Have we observed, listened, really attended to an examination of our current state— a self-reflective investigation? And have we examined our context, external conditions, stakeholders, potential disruptors, emergent trends, indicators of change—shift happening? Innovation strategies can only be evaluated in context.
Try this one at home: calculate the ratio of periods to question marks in the last leadership presentation, communiqué, exchange you gave or participated in.
Simply put, simply answered, simply enormous as an organizational discipline. Why? Because the rigor of framing the right questions as a precedent to action is far more challenging than is our intuitive and largely habitual impatience for answers.
The questioning leader-for-innovation enjoys an immediate advantage. He or she has begun a dialogue, invited conversation, positioned themselves to listen. The leadership impact of authentic questions is moreover much more profound. This approach presupposes that there are two conditions for innovation—indeed for any positive organizational outcome— communication and collaboration. As King Hammurabi admitted in a letter (in contrast to his formal statements of his supreme and sole authority) no King can be all Kings. You cannot do it alone.
Communication and collaboration are not organizational and behavioral characteristics that merely advance or accelerate innovation. They are the only way in today’s environment to cause innovation to happen. Even Hammurabi recognized this in his diplomatic and administrative policies—and he had the default option available to only a few of us today of absolute power and divine interface.
George Bernard Shaw, who knew a thing or two about communication, collaboration, creativity and change, said that the single biggest problem with communication is “the illusion that it has taken place.” When communication fails, it takes collaboration down with it. This is the rhetoric-reality chasm into which the best-intentioned innovation efforts plummet.
Our Babylonian protagonist was a born leader, but today the only born leaders are hereditary monarchies, few of whom appear to be seeking careers in insurance. Nonetheless, archival materials also suggest that Hammurabi sought to learn leadership. This demonstrates extraordinary insight into the nature of leadership; learning and leadership are symbiotic. A further indicator of his being a leader for innovation is Hammurabi’s recognition of his personal responsibility as a unifying force and an agent for change.
The imperatives of his responsibility caused him to be personally involved in innovation within every important national domain from defense policy to social policy, agriculture, trade, art, civic works and more. The innovation leader needs to endorse and engage personally in every dimension of the organization’s innovation agenda. Endorse and engage, advocate and act— not micromanage or delegate detachedly to an innovation group.
Hammurabi strove to be a leader in whom his people trusted. Trust is the single most potent organizational attribute for fostering innovation. He succeeded on both counts.
3,700 years later much has changed. This has not. The leaders who create—personally and publicly—conditions of trust, communication and collaboration are those who will create the conditions for innovation. This does not happen by intention, but by being consistently committed to value creation.
Tradition dictated that a King’s successes be rewarded with deification during his lifetime. Hammurabi broke with his entitlement status quo—a decision that reoriented the leadership paradigm in the Near East for centuries. Even today, a leadership paradigm that disproportionately rewards the apex of an organization dislocated from value creation diminishes innovation, dilutes trust, and discourages collaboration.
King Hammurabi informed the course of legal history and of insurance; his innovations continue to be studied and debated today. He also inspired a computer game on strategy and a work of art over the door of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In our endeavors to innovate insurance, we often talk about staying relevant. This ancient leader has pulled of the remarkable feat of staying relevant for the best part of 4,000 years.