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Innovation Starts in the Belly of the Beast

Innovation Starts in the Belly of the Beast

getty_488822687_9709709704500209_50148In the Biblical parable, God commands Jonah to make a journey to a foreign land and preach against the wicked. Instead Jonah sets sail in the opposite direction believing that the unrighteous were unworthy of salvation. The almighty raises a storm and the crew sacrifices Jonah by casting him into the turbulent sea where he is swallowed whole by a great fish or whale. Penitent, Jonah is expelled from the leviathan and washed ashore so that he may travel to the land of the wicked where they are moved by his words to repent and are thus saved.

The journey of Jonah is the same journey of the true innovator. It starts in the belly of the beast.

Innovation chooses you. Sure, you cultivate your own sets of talents and interests and bring those to any project you join, but there is only so much agency you have over any given innovation initiative. If you want to change the world, you need to go where the world needs changing. This isn’t something that you decide. Innovation is greater than any individual who wants to achieve it. When we sign on to enact change, we also have to agree to go wherever it takes us.

This is the struggle that two radically different practitioners both trying to reach the same goal grappled with: they couldn’t see that, if they really wanted to make their ambitions a reality, they needed to go places where they didn’t want to be.

Andr was a young renaissance man who wanted to effect big change in the world. Well-educated, slightly cynical, and insanely creative, he was committed to saving the environment. He walked and rode the bus everywhere and imagined everyone would do the same one day.

Marcel was the heir to a family business. He turned his organization into a world-class company–one of the leading manufacturers of plastic bottles and containers–and now he wanted to make it more eco-friendly.

When Marcel came to me for help with going green, I immediately thought of Andr and brought the two together. For all their obvious dissimilarities, they had a fundamental goal in common: to reduce our environmental impact in a meaningful way.

After a series of initial meetings, Andr and Marcel simply couldn’t find a middle ground. Despite their shared objective, they couldn’t get past their own agendas. Andr had a predetermined set of innovative processes he wanted to implement, and Marcel wouldn’t budge on changes that were so extreme that they would compromise his company’s position in the industry.

The negativity gained momentum. Andr and Marcel each had their own set of allies who refused to engage in genuine conversation with the opposing side. They both wanted to see their own version of innovation strategy enacted immediately and failed to see that they needed a hybrid step-by-step plan to get from here to there.

While failure is an essential part of the innovation process, sometimes it cannot be overcome.

In this case the biggest failure was me. I got involved as an ambassador to both sides too late in the process. A disagreement on how to approach innovation had turned into personal aspersions. There was too much ill will to move forward.

Andr quit the venture and went to work for a small consulting firm with like-minded individuals. In his new position, he found accord, though he ultimately faced few challenges–and had little impact.

Likewise, Marcel’s company continued to produce its plastic bottles and containers much as it had before and never realized its eco-friendly goals.

What it took me too long to understand was that sometimes people can’t find a way to get together and make their way to the new and unknown places on their own. They need an emissary who can go back and forth to facilitate translation and productive communication.

What innovators need more than anything else, though, is the willingness to go where innovation calls them. If they try to go where they want to change–instead of the place that needs to be changed–then they’ll meet the same fate as Jonah did when he decided to go his own way.

Innovation often requires us to walk and work among the uninitiated and unwashed. The favored few have little need for the novel and new. So they do not venture into the dark and dangerous places where innovation is born. It is only in the belly of the beast that innovation swallows innovators whole.

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