My Latest Insight about Innovation

I’ve been reading tons about innovation – particularly social innovation.  I have lists of definitions,criteria, descriptions, and examples of innovation and social innovation. 

But my latest insight came yesterday when I was listening to the a16z Podcast on my way to visit friends.

Amidst the techno jibber-jabber, most of which went over my head, the hosts had a conversation about two types of innovation they see in the tech landscape;  sustaining innovations and disruptive innovations.

A ‘Sustaining’ Innovation occurs within the existing environments and aids to reinforce the existing business model.   Moving online shopping from the desktop computer to the mobile applications on the smartphone. 

A ‘Disruptive’ Innovation will interrupt the existing business model.  Online media and news sources have eviscerated the revenue sources curbside newspapers traditionally used to run their businesses, forcing them to change their business models to survive.

Applying these definitions to the social sector would lead to some valuable, insightful conversations while developing approaches, programs, or interventions aimed at addressed complex problems.

Social Sector Sustaining Innovation – would aid to reinforce the status quo.

Social Sector Disruptive Innovation – would disrupt the status quo.

So a  conversation might begin with the question; 

To what extent is our idea (approach,intervention, service or program) a Sustaining Innovation and to what extent is it a Disruptive Innovation?

To be clear, this kind of conversation is most valuable when the group:

  1. Is open to being honest with themselves about the way(s) in which the idea might be contributing to the problem they are trying to address. 
  2. Sets aside any preconceived notions about either type of innovation being inherently better than the other.

If you are similar to a couple of my friends, and enjoy the techno jibber-jabber, I certainly encourage you to check out this podcast. 

Even if the techno jibber-jabber is not your bailiwick, the podcast is safe way to listen to folks who talk tech without feeling embarrassed about not knowing what’s going on part of the time.

Link to the episode:  a16z Podcast: Technological Trends, Capital, and Internet ‘Disruption’

Etmanski: Think and Act Like a Movement

Al Etmanski’s book assumes readers are striving to achieve real systemic change and his first pattern articulates the importance of movements.  For Etmanski, “Institutional change cannot happen without a movement” (P.49) and “A movement is composed of a million small acts.” (P.48).

This is not new.  Change occurs when enough people are moved to action for a long enough period that it finally happens. Gladwell talks about this type of change in Tipping Point.

The new piece for me was Etmanski’s insistence that systemic change requires us to look beyond our immediate context and missions to the broader goals of the movement. As an example you might identify a gap in mental health support for veterans. To impact the system creating the gap, Etmanski believes you should align your efforts with broader movements like The Movement for Global Mental Health or The Canadian Mental Health Association.

Think back to the occasions when you were involved in developing a mission and vision for your organization.  Was the movement a part of those discussions and considerations?  Was a movement objective devised alongside the mission and vision?

It’s not unusual for us to focus on the local context where we can see the ways our work makes a difference.  Spending time and energy on thinking about how we will contribute to the ‘movement’ seems like an abstract, ambiguous, pointless task.

To keep conversations about developing a movement objective meaningful, Etmanski provides some loose boundaries in his characteristics of an effective social justice movement.

Five Characteristics of an Effective Social Justice Movement.

  1. “They ignite our imaginations” – Do you contribute to a bold vision that disrupts the status quo?
  2. “They are multi-generational” – Do you contribute to movements as they reappear in new forms with successive generations?
  3. “They comprise small acts” – Do you contribute to the same thing that others feel compelled to contribute to?
  4. “They are self-organized” Do you contribute to something in which everyone sees the goal without a central command structure or charismatic champion?
  5. “They marry art and justice” – Do you contribute to something in which art has created new ways of seeing the world and transformed what we see as a possibility?

 

Would you say efforts to help the flood of Syrian Refugees is a movement?  Or the Arab Spring? Or Occupy Wall Street?

 

Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation by Al Etmanski is a guide for social innovators to move their idea from localized success to broader systemic impact.

 

Making Your Idea Matter

Having repeatedly heard folks in social innovation circles refer to Al Etmanski, I felt compelled to pick up his book Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation.  It’s intended to guide innovators after their idea has been mushed, mashed, shaped, sanded, polished and tested.

How does a social innovator shepherd an idea from local success to broader systemic impact?

I recommend picking up a copy for his stories illustrating many of the ideas I’ll be posting.  A quick, accessible, useful read.

Etmanski opens by saying we all have the ability, capacity and responsibility to innovate. We can’t escape by saying ‘I’m not a big idea thinker‘ or ‘I’m a doer not a thinker‘. Further, he identifies three types of innovators needed to spread an idea, no matter how amazing, to achieve broader systemic impact.

Disruptive Innovators: have the unwavering belief that we can do better by challenging the the way it’s always been done..

Bridging Innovators: have the credibility and networks to highlight the benefits of the disruptive innovator’s new idea for institutions and policy makers.

Receptive Innovators: have access and knowledge of the system to change policy, law or funding to make the idea possible. (also known as intrapreneurs).

Which type of innovator are you?  Even more importantly, do you know anyone from the other two types of innovator?

 

Liminal Principles in Practice

One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I like ideas that can be incorporated into my practice….with minimal effort.  I don’t have great success when I’m given a 350 page textbook and need a degree in advanced science to decipher its contents.  Instead I like books that are accessible and practical.  Gray’s book has been a joy to read and I encourage all of my readers to try to locate a copy. 

My past few posts have explored the first part of the book outlining the six principles of Liminal Thinking.  The second part of the book explores the nine practices of a liminal thinker.  Below are three I found most compelling.

Create safe space.  Have you ever been confronted by a behavior you couldn’t even begin to understand?  Gray would say it’s because the person has an unmet emotional need they don’t feel they can share because it isn’t safe.  To get others to reveal their needs and beliefs (true motivations for their actions), we need to create a safe space in which people are able to break from their self-sealing logic and belief bubble.

Triangulate and validate.  Have you ever been so sure of something that later turned out to be wrong?  Practicing Liminal Thinking means investigating as many differing perspectives as possible regardless of how obviously wrong they may seem.   “If you think something is obvious, that’s an idea that bears closer examination.” (P.95, Liminal Thinking)

Make sense with stories. I’ve always believed in the power of the narrative but just never had the words to explain it until now.   Asking someone to share their story is a way of telling them that their experiences are worth learning from.  “When someone tells you a story, they are sharing an experience and expressing their beliefs about that experience at the same time” (p.125, Liminal Thinking).

This brings my series on Liminal Thinking to a close.

The Disgruntled Mentee

The Edmonton Region Immigrant Employment Council (ERIEC) administers a mentorship program for immigrant professionals unfamiliar with the skills required to acquire professional employment in their fields of expertise in Alberta.

I mentor in this program as often as my schedule will allow because I selfishly enjoy hearing about the journeys people take to arrive in Edmonton.  For mentees, access to mentors can expedite their job search by helping with their resumes, cover letters, interviews and networking.  However, one skill that consistently causes resistance and distress amongst mentees, is the need to differentiate themselves by cultivating a personal brand.   

I had one mentoring experience in which the mentee repeatedly dodged activities related to personal branding.  After a few conversations, I found that he was not comfortable differentiating himself from everyone else.  He told me “the nail that sticks up is the one that gets hammered down”. It simply felt wrong to him.

Although there are informative intercultural lenses from which to explain his feeling of ‘wrongness’, using the liminal thinking lens, Gray would say personal branding challenges his governing belief about how a reputable, credible, honourable, and professional person should act.  

“A belief that is deeply tied to identity and feelings of self-worth is called a governing belief” (p.53, Liminal Thinking)

But it still leaves the problem.  To increase the likelihood that my mentee would get a job in his field of expertise in the Canadian labour market, he would need to understand the importance of ‘being the nail that sticks up‘…..at least a little.

This would require altering his governing belief that personal branding activities were shameful, changing how he sees himself and inevitably how all the people in his life see him.  If it sounds formidable and transformational, it’s because it is.  But it helps explain why, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, people refuse to change.

In liminal thinking terms, governing beliefs are the foundation for the bubbles of belief a group uses to navigate and survive reality together.  Being the member of the group to challenge a governing belief can jeopardize relationships, making them risky to discuss and very difficult to change.  But being a liminal thinker means having the awareness to identify your governing beliefs and the courage to confront them.  

Over time my mentee began building a personal brand because he was seeing that he was having limited success without it.  No matter how many resumes he sent, he still received few requests for interviews.  Circumstances forced him to challenge his governing belief. Ultimately, it lead to forging new relationships while letting others go.  He was co-creating a new reality with a new group.  

To shed light on your governing beliefs Gray has an excellent exercise   Begin by writing down the beliefs that make you the person you are and form the foundation for all the choices (large and small) in your life. Then sit down with a person you trust, and ask them to tell you what they think your governing belief(s) are.  Comparing notes will lead to a lively and revealing conversation.

 

Liminal Thinking Principle #6:  “Beliefs are tied to identity.  Governing beliefs, which form the basis for other beliefs, are the most difficult to change, because they are tied to personal identity and feelings of self-worth. You can’t change governing beliefs without changing yourself.” (p.57, Liminal Thinking)

The Way We’ve Always Done It

How do you feel when you start a new position with a new team?   For me it has always been a mix of excitement and awkwardness.  Mostly awkwardness. Because I don’t know the unwritten rules of the place and I don’t want to make an embarrassing faux pas on my first few days.

To explain this, Gray would say the team I am joining has a shared set of beliefs they use to navigate their work relationships called the bubble of belief.  Beliefs I do not yet possess because I don’t have their shared experience of working together.  The kitchen is a perfect example.  On one occasion before attending a meeting,  I had gone to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.  I picked a cup from the cupboard and boiled water like I have thousands of times.   Unfortunately I turned up to the meeting using the boss’s favorite cup.  I could feel a tremor of discomfort when I entered the room because everyone else knew not to use that cup.

Bubbles of belief exist in every corner of our lived experience.  They are shared maps that groups use to navigate relationships in the reality they co-create.  Unfortunately, they are maps that occasionally lead us over a cliff too.

Have you ever heard this phrase at work “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it”?  

It’s always been done that way and continues to be done that way because “….new information from outside the bubble of belief is discounted, or distorted, because it conflicts with the version of reality that exists inside the bubble” (p.45, Liminal Thinking).  Gray calls this self-sealing logic.  There are many examples of how this type of thinking has had disastrous effects. Blackberry couldn’t see past the keyboard design while Apple gobbled up their market share with the touchscreen.  In 2000, the Blockbuster CEO passed up the opportunity to purchase Netflix for $ 50 million saying it was a niche company.  Netflix is now worth more than $30 billion. I wonder how many times these words were uttered in the Northlands boardroom while Katz busily outmaneuvered them.

Why is it so difficult for people to see past their self-sealing belief bubbles?

Gray points out that people evaluate a new idea in two ways; internally (does it make sense?) and externally (can I test it?).  Most new ideas fail to get past the internal test because they challenge the bubble of belief and so they automatically do not make sense and therefore do not need to be tested.  A video streaming service must have seemed impossible to the CEO of the most successful video rental business so therefore there is no need to test what it’s potential could be.

Think back to a time when you came forward with a fantastic, innovative, can’t miss new idea that was dismissed by the group.  Was the groups defending its’ bubble of belief?  Do you think your new idea challenged group identity?

Conversely, take a minute and think about what happens when your beliefs are challenged.  How do you defend them?

 

Liminal Thinking Principle 5:”Beliefs defend themselves.  Beliefs are unconsciously by a bubble of self-sealing logic, which maintains them even when they are invalid, to protect personal identity and self-worth.” (P. 49, Liminal Thinking)

How Our Beliefs Limit Us

Last Friday, my wife and I ventured into downtown. You could tell it was game night.  People were clad in their orange and blue on the LRT, in the streets and in the restaurants.   As it happened we would be joining the crowds as the Oilers took on the Nashville Predators.  When describing the experience of attending the game to friends and family I find myself saying “It was exciting for an Oilers game”.  Which really means “In the past, most of the excitement at an Oilers game came from the concession stands, so I’m not ready to believe they have a legitimate chance at winning a game”.

It’s a strange belief to maintain.  The Oilers have a new Stanley Cup winning General Manager (Peter Chiarelli), a tested, stable coaching staff (Todd McLellan), the brightest player to enter the game since Sidney Crosby(Connor McDavid), numerous other amazing young players (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Adam Larrson, Darnell Nurse, Leon Draisaitl), quality free agent signings (Milan Lucic), a reliable goaltender (Cam Talbot) and a fabulous new arena. The Oilers have a chance to make the playoffs this year rather than being mathematically eliminated by December.   However, in the face of such evidence, I continue to believe they have a greater chance of losing then they do of winning.

Gray calls this a limiting belief.  It’s a belief that limits my ability to see other possibilities.  I can’t believe the Oilers could be a winning team because I still believe they are a losing team.

Being a liminal thinker requires us to identify our limiting beliefs and look beyond them to the possibilities they obscure from our view.

What beliefs do you have about yourself that limit your potential?  What beliefs do you have about others that could be limiting their potential?

 

Liminal Thinking Principle 4: Beliefs create blind spots.  Beliefs are tools for thinking and provide rules for action, but they can also create artificial constraints that blind you to valid possibilities” (p.39, Liminal Thinking)