Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Amid Chaos, Necessity is still the Mother of Invention

As the financial crisis is all around us, the old saying “it rains on the just and the unjust” comes to mind. It seems applicable to the realm of innovators as well. It rains on the operator and the innovator. Not that operators are just and innovators unjust, or vice versa. It's just that both are affected by the “rains of fear” coming down on us all from the dark storm clouds of chaos in our financial markets.

Typically Innovating Perspectives prefers to stay with principles and practices of innovation and its management, seeking timeless wisdom and practical experience to innovators in their networks and communities of practice. However, the turbulence and apparent chaos of the financial markets that is affecting all of us—and will likely affect us for some time to come—has given us pause. 

The speed, volatility and pervasiveness of what is raining down on all of us—our host organizations, our nascent and vulnerable innovations-in-development, our customer’s readiness for something new, our personal anxieties about our 401Ks, retirement plans, and stock options—all seems at risk, if not completely under water and thoroughly soaked. It is difficult not to ask, “what’s going to happen to us?” It is also very tempting to follow Chicken Little into the conclusion that the sky is indeed falling.

Thanks to the recommendation of our friend Ivy Ross, a very observant and wise leader and current EVP of Marketing at The Gap, I finished reading Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science (1992, 2006). The essay is a fascinating thought experiment challenging us to rethink management and leadership by pointing us to what the new sciences of field and chaos theories reveal about how post-Newtonian nature really works. I am grateful to have read this book amidst this financial chaos. 

Here are a few lines that are helping me maintain some emotional balance: 

“It is chaos’ great destructive energy that dissolves the past and gives us the gift of a new future.” 

“We have held in us the dance of creation and learned that growth always requires passage through the fearful realms of disintegration.” 

“The destruction created by chaos is necessary for the creation of anything new.” 
The destruction of wealth that is happening around us and from which none of us can escape—as individuals, as innovators, and innovation sponsors in our host organizations—is undeniable. However, this chaos should not evoke in us a self-centered fatalistic cynicism, nor drive us to escape into a Pollyanna hope that “everything will turn out alright.” Instead, it might call forth in us the prophetic role many of us as innovators can and do play in the context of our host organizations, particularly with those colleagues who view themselves not as innovators but operators. 

In the role as prophetic catalysts for the future—the host organization’s future—we can and should bring the voice and perspective that there is opportunity here, even here and now, and it needs our attention. This is not to deny nor give in to the tragic and deterministic narrative to which simple straight-line projections confine us—too often the thinking of our counterparts in operations and finance. Many of them are just doing their jobs.

We ourselves need to remember our own experience and take careful pains to remind our organizations, the perennial truth that necessity is the mother of invention. That this potentially protracted period of necessity we are likely entering is not something that should shut down our innovation efforts. Instead, this time may prove to be a period, though painful, where necessity becomes a ‘tough love’ mother for our current and future innovation efforts, not the coroner. It may be a painful blessing in disguise.  

Joseph Schumpeter described the entrepreneurial pattern of creative destruction and postulated that dynamic disequilibrium brought on by the innovator rather than stability and optimization is the ‘norm’ of a healthy economy. Even before Schumpeter, J.B. Say, the French economist who coined the term entrepreneur, defined innovation not as either “innovation” or “entrepreneur” as is commonly understood. He defined it with this tough love mother in mind when he described it as improving the yield of resources. 

Innovators (or entrepreneurs) always shift economic resources from areas of lower productivity to areas of higher productivity and yield. Peter Drucker reflected on Say’s influence this way: “The essence of economic activity is the commitment of present resources to future expectations, and that means to uncertainty and risk. To be sure, people who need certainty are unlikely to make good entrepreneurs (innovators).”

These are times that call forth from us that most basic of all principles that quietly and implicitly animates so much of what innovators do—faith. By faith we don’t mean to refer to a religious or spiritual set of beliefs that you may or may not hold. Rather we refer to “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” that has enabled us to move forward in the past through these headwinds of fears—whether those winds of fear are coming from the prevailing Northerlies of uncertainty, the periodic Southerlies of rejection, or the powerful Nor’easters of loss (of control) and failure. By faith, we mean to recognize a common muscle that resides with innovators—prisoners of hope—who put that faith into forward movement through the winds of fear because their future expectations won’t let them do otherwise.

The inherent and inescapable discipline that comes from times of necessity can spur us to return to the fundamentals and roots of innovation, even open innovation—generosity, trust and transparency. Perhaps this will be such a period of radical, necessity-born innovation.  

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in October 2008. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call  (415) 387-1270.

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