Changes that seemed impossible only a few months ago, such as the majority of people working from home, ceasing production and to travel en mass – resulting in a freshness and clarity of air not experienced in decades – have become a reality almost over night. While many yearn to be able to go ‘back to normal’, the corona crisis has instilled a great sense of opportunity in many others, who see this crisis as an opportunity to innovate towards a different, better and new ‘normal’. ‘Better’, in a sense of showing deeper respect for nature, working with and through it, rather than aiming to control it. ‘Better’, in a sense of seeking more equality and a good life for all who live on this planet, not just a priviledged few – according to Oxfam, in 2019 the world’s 26 richest people own as much as poorest 50%.
This crisis, like nothing else before, seems to have stirred humanity’s conscience, and created a willingness to seriously consider a different ‘normal’. Perhaps not entirely surprising: for the first time the threat is felt and experiened by each and every one of us, up close and personal. There is no deniability.
The virus has achieved something neither the warning voices of the Club of Rome, captured in the book Limits to Growth from almost 50 years ago, nor the alarming changes in whether patterns, nor the equally alarming loss of biodiversity have been able to achieve – according to a report by the UN, published May 2019, “1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.”
The question is, will the current experience be strong enough to leave a lasting impression, creating true willingness to change of enough people to create a tipping point? Or will we be able to oberve mindset only too aptly described by Berhold Brecht in one of his short stories of Mr K.: “Mr K. rose from the rubble that had been his home. ‘Never ever again’, he said, ‘… at least, not right away’.”
I feel that some diconnects I had idedntified when asked what prevents people from embracing disruptive innovation back in 2009, in the midst of the economic meltdown, might have some relevance here and would hence like to share a slightly updated version here.
1. A disconnect in understanding innovation output and input
We often talk about innovation in terms of technologies, patens, R&D budgets, diffusion curves and dissemination, and it seems that much innovation is driven by what is technically possible, rather than what is necessary from an individual’s or society’s point of view. While we have seen a shift to a more people-centric approach to achieve innovation success in terms innovation output – customer focus, latent consumer needs, design thinking are some of the buzz words here – I believe that we also need a more people-centric approach when it comes to understanding innovation input. What I am talking about is a deeper understanding of what prevents us as human beings form developing, pursuing and accepting radical solutions.
Being satisfied with what works reasonably well seems to be the norm. Even in times of crisis, like the one we are experiencing now, there is a reluctance to seek radical solutions. We might be willing to embrace radical solutions for a while, but all with the hope that everything will go back to normal soon. This aspect of human nature has been captured rather well by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), “Nothing is more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”
2. A disconnect of individual and society
In my view there is not only a vertical disruptive border but somehow also a horizontal one. On the one hand we increasingly see bottom-up movements, a willingness to seek change and take action, on the other hand we find increasing levels of disengagement and apathy inside organisations and institutions. We hear talk about ‘us and them’, and what organisations do to us – seemingly forgetting that organisations are made up of individuals, people like us. We talk about customers and users as if they were something rather different from ourselves. As a result we see voice activated telephone answering systems that everyone hates – even the small restaurant / hotel on the north Norfolk coast where I had planned to book a lunch (and then did not, because of it).
Have you noticed that we hear talk that ‘they’ must change, occasionally that ‘we’ must change but not often that ‘I’ must change – ‘do as I say don’t do as I do’. Again I would like to cite someone greater and wiser than myself, Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948), who said: “You need to be the change you want to see in the world.”
3. A disconnect of decision and implication
This somehow builds on my first two points; I believe that we see the decisions we do because decision makers are ‘protected’ from observing and feeling the consequences of their own decisions. Consider current redundancy rounds: the bosses who decide to ‘loose’ 20% of their workforce are rarely the ones facing the individuals who are being made redundant. And those who do, are only executing orders. As Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) said, “It is only too easy to make suggestions and later try to escape the consequences of what we say.”
How to cross the chasm
- We need to acknowledge human’s resistance to change and find ways to address concerns; I believe that motivational and inspirational approaches to engaging people in change can be more powerful than using fear as the major driving force. Truly involving people in the change they are expected to embrace might be a good start as people do not so much resist change as being changed. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944) author and pilot said in his book The Little Prince, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
- We need to find ways to imbue a sense of responsibility – not only for the self but also for the implications of one’s actions – in every individual. I’d like to leave you with a slightly unusual quote here from The Heart of Man by Eric Fromm (1) “The longer we continue to make the wrong decisions, the more our heart hardens; the more often we make the right decisions, the more our heart softens – or better perhaps, becomes alive.”
- In order to minimise negative consequence of our actions – as well as mitigate fears – we ought to think through any change or innovation at the systems level. Using implications for planet, people, and profit – in that order – as evaluation criteria for innovations might be a good start; or, in the words of Iroquois Wisdom (2): “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
I first shared the essence of these thought at Philips’ ‘Disruption Day’, 11th March 2009. You can read more about ‘Disruption Day’, and Philips’ journey of integrating their innovation and sustainability agendas in Dorothea Ernst’s book “Personal and Organizational Transformation Towards Sustainability: Walking a Twin-Path”. Dorothea was the initiator, and one of the leaders and facilitators of this journey.
(1) Erich Seligmann Fromm (1900 – 1980) was an internationally renowned social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and humanistic philosopher.
(2) The Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee as they prefer to refer to themselves, is a group of first five, later six Native Americans nations that has existed long before Europeans started arriving in America. Their constitution, also called Longhouse Construction dates back to at least 1100 A.D.