“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality”. (Dante Alighieri )

In the classic children’s story Stone Soup three wily soldiers with no money or food come to a wary village and set a large iron caldron by the well in the town square. As the inhabitants look on, the soldiers fill the vessel with water and ceremoniously place a large stone in the pot. Intrigued the villagers come out to examine and critique the colorless concoction. Some suggest that the broth would be improved with carrots or potatoes and such to which the tricksters agree. The meal gains momentum as the folks each willingly add some small ingredient. Soon the caldron is bubbling with a sumptuous brew and all feast and dance in celebration. The story ends with the soldiers moving down the road to repeat the whole charade on the next unsuspecting burg.

This parable about the creative power of communities was enormously popular in both Europe and the States during the Great Depression when those down on their luck were expected to contribute a little something to the family or community. Participation moves potential resistors out of their reactive positions when they are engaged in a potential solution – What would you do? We dignify our own ideas. This is why meaningful work is so essential even in postmodern cultures especially for those who are often marginalized like the disempowered or disabled. History confirms that during these times of scarcity many of our most lauded innovations emerge – Plastic, frozen foods, FM radio, jet engine …and canned beer. This is even truer for social innovations, including education and medicine, which typically make their appearance in troubled times. Necessity is both mother and daughter of invention for with each new solution a new challenge emerges.

This doesn’t mean that groups are more effective than individual action in all cases. In fact, research suggests that the open source ethos while producing more solutions than smaller elitist groups often devise ones of inferior value or merit. So while diversity is an essential element to innovation and growth it is tempered by the need for deep domain expertise. Consider the case of social media. Large groups spot winning ideas early but have the attention span of a gnat and often pull toward the norm – mediocrity.

However, there is powerful combustion in collocating and fully engaging traditionally competitive groups across boundaries to consolidate their resources and focus their efforts. Real innovation requires a great deal of personal bandwidth. A case in point is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN which pools the resources of many post-industrialized nations and brings together leading scientists to Geneva to collaboratively unlock the mysteries of nature. While key members of this community which includes several Nobel Laureates intimated that the apparatus could produce microscopic black holes that would trigger a doomsday scenario they nevertheless listened judiciously to their colleagues and turned the machine on – “See you in hell Jürgen”.

These co-creating activities can happen at any scale and sinuously connect multiple groups – suppliers and customers, scientists and artists, teachers and students. The shared vision and values of these relationships do not proceed but rather succeed them. That is, these groups grow into a whole together over time like any marriage. It is through people and projects that a real union is formed. Small experiments precede larger endeavors and commitments. Separate aims may not mix but symbiotically coexist as do our roles in our portfolio life. Ideas become projects. Projects become ventures. Ventures become mergers and so on. The byproduct of collaborative action not so much imaginative hybrid products and solutions as it is new ways of working and philosophies of living.

The way we make the soup de jure changes over time not only by altering the recipe but by changing our convictions and contributions. In integrating our disparate community we become integral.

  • Cross boundaries to grow together

Jeff DeGraff

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