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Imitating Innovation

July 15, 2009

The current economic, social, and environmental situation calls for a new way of looking at ourselves, our relationships with one another, and our responsibilities toward the world as a whole. Are we sufficiently well equipped intellectually, much less inclined emotionally, to engage in the necessary introspection?

American philosopher and social critic Eric Hoffer must have wondered about this when he wrote, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”

All around us we see examples of herd mentality. The fact we notice this behavior is in and of itself testimony to the power of others’ actions over us.

The innovative thinking required to change course does not require us to ignore others. But it does require us to avoid the temptation to join or follow simply to avoid being left behind.

Disciplined and discerning observers of the social and political scene have probably already decided for themselves that we are in the midst of an epochal shift in mores. Fragments of new thinking in the form of memes now circle the globe via multiple mediums infiltrating and altering cultures faster than the novel H1NI influenza virus can spread and mutate.

We often like to think of leaders as instigators or facilitators of change. In the situation in which we presently find ourselves, however, the pace of change and its consequences threaten to overwhelm even the most adept and capable leaders.

How then do we keep our bearings much less help others find their way amidst this maelstrom of change? We can start by looking beyond what people are doing. Putting their actions in context requires us to take account of the values that motivate them (and us) by considering the morality of the results these actions produce.

In his recent book Leaders Make the Future, two of the important leadership skills futurist Bob Johanson highlights can help leaders innovate rather than rely on the ability to imitate and incrementally improve on the actions of others. One emphasizes immersive learning and the other he calls bio-empathy.

Immersive learning requires leaders to imagine, if not actually put themselves in, unfamiliar situations and fully embrace the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity they find there. This process often starts with imagining a desired end state and deconstructing the process to achieve it, particularly the interdependent relationships among resources and actors as well as obstacles to success.

Bio-empathy encourages leaders to look for answers in the subtle but elegant ways in which the natural world adapts to achieve and maintain balance. This process is far from orderly, and produces many more unsuccessful adaptations than the successful ones that attract our awe and attention. Understanding the process by which the natural world picks winners can again help us appreciate the importance of understanding context and taking advantage of opportunities.

Both of these techniques remind us that change is as discontinuous and irregular as it is inexorable. Change and adaptation comes in fits and starts. When people sense the world lurching past them or sinking beneath their feet, they instinctively turn to one another for reassurance.

In such instances, imitating those adept at exhibiting false confidence can lead to disaster. My friend Jack Snook reminded me at lunch yesterday, albeit indirectly, that effective leaders are those like the fabled Jack and the beanstalk fame who are willing to look beyond others’ reactions, get their hands dirty planting seeds, and watching patiently as things grow. Their search for meaning applies reason grounded not so much on evidence as in faith that the future will reveal to us innovative adaptations capable of attracting and holding others’ attention.

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