Or: How Incremental Tweaks Can Frustrate True Transformation

While assimilating the remarkable insights from the BIF-6 Collaborative Innovation Summit last month, produced by our valued alliance partner the Business Innovation Factory, I had the opportunity to sit with Alan Webber, a conference presenter, at his favorite café in Santa Fe. It may be the altitude, but we seem to have interesting conversations there.

This one led to a discussion of the potentially catastrophic course society seems to be following, in areas like energy, climate, and unsustainable development; industries that know they must disrupt or be disrupted, but still can’t; and the problem of why we seem to be incapable of true transformative innovation, even when we know what we need to do, and why. This led us to Jared Diamond’s essential work “Collapse.” Those who have read it will remember the question he poses, which I paraphrase: “What could have been going through the mind of the guy who cut down the last tree on Easter Island?”

It’s time we collectively asked ourselves the same question, as we proceed to cut down the trees, both figuratively and literally, on which we depend. How can we be so acutely aware of the need for disruptive, transformative innovation at the level of organizations, industries, and systems, and yet be so unable to do the right thing? SFIP’s recent experience preparing an application to the Buckminster Fuller Institute Challenge Grant (see our two-minute video here) made us think long and hard about some answers:

Because it’s hard. It’s scary. It’s risky. It takes vision, guts, and determination, plus a good amount of imagination. And that makes us susceptible to voices that tell us they have the answers. Could it be that these are the Stone Gods of our time, commanding our loyalty, energy, resources, and attention, watching impassively as we cut down trees?

In that spirit, here’s a “Top Ten Stone Gods of Innovation” list, to help us remember to whom we should (and should not) be listening:

  1. Management consultants, especially change practice consultants (ask any Big Five veteran how many of his or her clients ever changed anything meaningfully)
  2. Internal innovation departments (what happens when you cross a mandate to innovate with a need to know what the impact of any initiative would be in costs and revenues, in advance?)
  3. The buzz on crowdsource platforms (do we honestly think www.challenge.gov is going to help Washington get its mojo back, or is this meant to make the rest of us feel better?)
  4. Policy institutes (what’s the wildest idea you’ve seen come out of Brookings?)
  5. Retreat and workshop centers (what happens after everyone gets home and catches up on email?)
  6. Business schools that talk about innovation as an extension of their past performance (including one that used to be known as the “West Point of Capitalism“)
  7. Business books (it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that time spent reading about innovation is time spent not innovating; and there’s a whole lot of books you can read)
  8. Technology (or, whatever got us into this mess will surely get us out of it… right?)
  9. Self-styled “Innovation and Creativity Experts” who promise to make it painless and fun (e.g., I kid you not, one who juggles)
  10. STEM education (see note above on Technology)

OK, if that’s what doesn’t work, what does? Here’s a proposition: Just as organizations and industries often need the shock of external systemic disruption to change,  individuals may need a jolt of “cognitive disruption” to move outside their customary way of thinking.

Crises serve this purpose, albeit inefficiently. Philosoher Roberto Unger observed that “The task of imagination is to do the work of crisis without crisis.” Albert Einstein pointed out that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And as Bucky himself said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

That’s a god I can spend time with.