Why Purple is the Colour of Innovation

Being able to communicate complex technical concepts to a broad, non-technical audience is an art and being able to gather a wealth of non-technical information and translate it into a technical solution is also an art.  Finding people with this ability has always been a challenge and one that was very aptly described in the 1980s when the insurance industry realised there was a need to explain increasingly complex products to lay people.  The industry at the time characterised the technical need as ‘blue’ – calm, detached, rational and the communication need as ‘red’ – passionate, connected, empathetic.  The ambition within the industry was to find the perfect blend of blue and red – to find Purple People.

The search for Purple People has been going ever since and has been driven by our increasingly technological world where the gulf between need and understanding has been ever widening.  We all use technology regularly but few of us can effectively articulate how the technology meets our needs.  We can say what happens if we don’t have it but we cannot truly define our need for it or for additional solutions that have yet to be invented.

In fact, if we could, it is not a great stretch to imagine that we would use less technology more effectively.  Our lack of detailed understanding leads us to be inefficient in our use.  Few can find the essential balance between need and available technology to create an ideal outcome.  Some of us are driven by our love of the latest technology and some are driven by the belief the technology is necessary.  Most of us kid ourselves we have made a sane and rational choice, backed by a fundamental understanding of our need and supporting by a detailed evaluation of all of the technology solutions available.  Most of us know we are kidding ourselves.

We will either be taking a blue view and calmly and rationally assessing the technology and building a use case for what we believe we need.  The problem with this approach is that it is an internally driven approach and the blue view rarely seeks other opinion or validation because it is an engineering led approach.  Others will take the red view and buy a design concept or a style choice or seek opinions from our peers and others.  We will likely see technology either as something technical that delivers a solution or something that adds to our lifestyle.  Most of us are predominantly blue or red.

Why are Purple People so important? Purple People have the holistic view, an innate ability to see both sides of the technology equation and to be able to freely translate between the sides.  If we have a Purple Person view, we can be more assured that not only do we have something that will meet our functional needs and our emotional needs but that it will look good, work well and be technologically appropriate.  In business, Purple People are worth their weight in gold because they can see problems, distil them into identifiable issues and find solutions whilst all the time communicating with all stakeholders, technical, financial, operational and management in language that each stakeholder understands.  They also bring instinct to data, taking measurement to a whole new level by throwing off the traditional chains of ‘what does good look like’ and re-imagining the world.

Purple People are the key to unlocking success in many areas in the modern world because of our dependence on technology and, if we are brutally honest, our lack of deep understanding of that technology.

The problem with Purple People is they are extremely rare.  Training can enhance innate talent but the essential ability to understand both the blue and the red is generally hard-wired and, because they are rare, they are often misunderstood and overlooked so the initially small pool of resource is further overlooked.  Purple People are different, and, despite their value, they are often overlooked during recruitment simply because they are different.  There is a tendency to recruit in our own image.  Even where organisations adopt more structured hiring approaches, the final decision will invariably come down to instinct and much of that instinct is governed by the safe sensation we gain from recruiting people like us.

Salespeople are fundamentally different to technical engineers.  Few people would disagree with that, but it is also true that some salespeople are excellent engineers, and some engineers are compelling in front of prospects and customers.  If we see sales to technical engineering as a spectrum from red to blue, then there will always be a significant proportion in the centre where there are varying shades of purple.

Over the years I have heard many stories of organisations deploying their ‘A Team’ to win a piece of business and then using the ‘B Team’ to deliver against their promises.  This approach is used because the ‘A Team’ is made up to include one or more Purple People and, because they are so rare, they are needed to win the next piece of business so they cannot deliver what they have sold.  This approach often ends with customer disillusionment.

Why do we not simply acknowledge that Purple People are rare and seeking them is wasting time and effort, especially as we may overlook them when we do encounter them because they do not fit into the neat boxes we create to recruit against.  Does it not make more sense to consciously build Purple Teams?  Purple Teams can be very challenging because they are, by necessity, a diverse collection of people with many differing views and opinions so they require careful management.

Managing a collection of people who have been selected for their diversity of opinion is a fine balance between ensuring all views have space for expression.  Collating all the elements, identifying gaps and removing irrelevant information requires open debate, challenge and discussion between the whole team.  There is always a fine balance between ensuring completeness of vision and building a realistic team, a compromise between every point of view and gathering the majority from a reasonable number of sources.  Using the Purple Team approach is an effective mechanism for finding the balance as long as you have identified what do red and blue represent within your part of the organisation.

Purple Teams are often deployed externally in client-facing roles because, being rare, their value is high and so using them to impress, win and retain clients is great use of them but Purple Teams are as effective internally as they are externally.  The next time your accountants meet to discuss their reporting, invite a salesperson along and invite a technical engineer.  Get their perspectives, encourage them to challenge what your accountants are doing.  Ask them what numbers would make a difference to them.  Have a different viewpoint and never assume that your own view is broad enough because, unless you are one of those very rare Purple People, you will have missed something.

Too often teams are created from like-minded people.  We see some businesses operated with high risk aversion using the basis of if it can’t be measured it can’t be managed.  These are very much blue businesses.  We also see businesses that are operated on innovation and instinct and a sense of what could be possible.  These are the red businesses.  Red businesses will crash and burn more often although, when they succeed, they will soar.  Blue businesses tend to plod along neither changing the world nor failing.  Imagine what a Purple Business would achieve.

There have been many examples of Purple Partnerships in the history of the world, often where there are extreme reds and blues.  Jobs and Wozniak, Gates and Allen, Rolls and Royce, Noyce and Moore, Proctor and Gamble, Page and Brin.  The list goes on and everybody will have different views of which partnerships should be included because everybody’s perspective is coloured and if we look at the world through blue tinted glasses it will look predominantly blue.

There are many ways of injecting purple into your organisation: building Purple Teams, finding the undiscovered Purple People you already have, using Purple Advisors or Purple Non-Exec Directors.  It is time for many of us to think differently about many things and the most effective way to achieve that is to adopt more diverse thought patterns, to link the data with instinct and, quite simply, to build teams that constantly challenge the status quo.


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