Back to Writing

Making Innovation Happen in the Most Challenging Situations

Making Innovation Happen in the Most Challenging Situations

Innovation is about making our world better and new. While there are some regions that are dealing with the speed and complexity of hyper-innovation, there are others that are struggling to integrate innovation in the most fundamental forms: clean water, reliable food sources, basic health care and safety from violence.

Given that most leaders will face a challenging situation where making innovation happen is difficult at best, I thought it might be helpful to interview someone who has lived with the most formidable of problems to see what lessons we can glean from their experience.

Paul Kortenhoven has been a development leader of West African Missions for over thirty years. He has worked through poverty, plagues and civil wars and now advises communities how to thrive in the face of adversity. Paul’s suggestions could apply to any community or organization. The next time you think you find it difficult to make innovation happen, you might want to consider Paul’s advice.

JEFF: Where do you start to make innovation happen in war-torn region where many are living day to day?

PAUL: First, you have to understand that you cannot help people without giving away a part of yourself. It often hurts to help-but the long term results for both the helper and “helpee”are tremendous.

Results for the helper are respect, self-confidence, understanding of who you really are and why you are where you are, happiness

Results for the “helpee” are healing, recognition, chance to improve life, seeing an example of compassion to follow which always “pays it forward” somehow and somewhere and the awareness that you are loved and you are valuable, your life counts.

JEFF: How do you establish a relationship with these communities that allows you to introduce new ideas?

PAUL: Belonging is everything. “I exist because we are!” This is the core value of the African villager. Everyone needs to belong to some unit…a family, peer group, work group in planting season…everyone belongs regardless of their status in the village….from the deaf mute to the village chief. Then, there are no losers. Only winners!

The positives of this widely held belief are overwhelming! So overwhelming that when the civil war started in Sierra Leone in 1991, the Revolutionary United Front or RUF used this value to indoctrinate their kidnapped child soldiers. The human need to belong, to be respected, to be of value was inverted completely. The RUF through force, intimidation and extreme violence demonstrated clearly that the perversion of what is good, noble and even biblical can be turned into pure evil.

Trust is key. In Sierra Leone (and most African poverty riddled countries) you simply die if you do not live in a village or an area in which people trust each other.
In literally every business, every school system, every government department, we need to figure out how to build and or re-build trust among employees and employers, the government and the people they represent, residents and the educational systems, rich and poor. It is possible if you believe it….remember the Kevin Costner movie “Field of Dreams”.

JEFF: So how do we create this Field of Dreams in the many places that need innovation the most?

PAUL: Well, maybe we should start by paying more attention to the rural areas, to the small towns. They are the soul of the state. Learn to listen to people who live and work on farms, orchards, in a small town garage, shopkeepers. The big cities and tech towns are not the center of our universe.

Then, take care of the poor who will “always be with us”. Use the existing welfare system wisely and improve it. People who need welfare really do need it. They are not all free loaders as so many of us think. And the myth of pulling yourself up by the boot straps is a just that…a myth not a fact. I know people for whom it has worked well and are now college graduates and even Ph. D’s. When they needed help, it worked for them.

The worst insult in an African village or society is to be called “tightfisted”. There are proverbs in very West African language about the sorry fate of “tightfisted “people. A good name is worth more than gold in a poor society. It isn’t just in poor societies that people need each other to survive. In the “wealthy” society we have in the US, we all need each other as well. The sooner the leaders of our greatest cities, schools, businesses and economic leaders learn this, the better off we all will be.

Be generous not parsimonious. Think about tapping the really wealthy for the sake of the poor and make it plain that we are doing this because it is the right thing to do.

JEFF: Why aren’t we doing more to make innovation happen in these places now?

PAUL: Simply put, intolerance. One of the most important lessons we learned in our international lives was to be tolerant of other cultures, other world views, other religions. If you do not tolerate other people as they are, other people will never figure out who you are and you will accomplish nothing by working among them. Find some people that you know think differently than you do and get to know them….by listening not by telling them what to do…talk with them and not to them. You will be a better leader better, a better CEO, a better worker and a better person.

We need to be inclusive not exclusive. Learn from the “movers and shakers” but do not worship them. Do not make major decisions based solely on their interest or comments. Remember that most people are not “movers and shakers” but they still need to be heard.

To at least approach some sense of democracy, be inclusive. Exclusive groups serve only themselves and “themselves” just ain’t enough to sustain anything but “themselves”….

JEFF: What is your biggest concern about our own society’s ability to develop meaningful innovations? 

PAUL: Multi-tasking! In less developed countries multi-tasking is a luxury. You have to concentrate on what is necessary for survival. In a recent NYT article, “Think less, Think better” by Moshe Bar made a lot of sense to me.

My father, a straight thinking mechanical engineer, literally took the radio out of our new 1958 Edsel because, as he said, “You cannot concentrate on your driving when are listening to the radio” And my bother in law (a vegetable farmer from Ohio) did not obey his father when told to turn off the radio while transplanting celery into the field from the green house and subsequently planted two whole rows of radishes upside down! Grandpa was not pleased to say the least.
Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist writes that a recent study by one of his Harvard graduate students “suggests that innovative thinking, not routine ideation, is our default mode when are minds are clear”. My father was right in 1958! Doing or thinking about several things simultaneously usually results in none of them being done well.

JEFF: In many ways, your suggestions about innovation are, shall we say, traditional?

PAUL: Their “newness” comes in the recognizing that the “tried and true” values past have been de-valued or discarded by the extreme individualism of our present day culture and the ease of electronic age which allows us and encourages us to be even more self-centered. This enables us to ignore our neighbor and belong only to ourselves. …bad for business, bad for any meaningful accountability for our decisions in whatever field in which we are engaged.

Once we recognize this, innovation can begin in leadership in business, education and government.


If you’d like to be in touch with Paul Kortenhoven, I welcome you to contact him directly: [email protected].

Jeff DeGraff is the Dean of Innovation: professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. Connect with Jeff on Twitter @JeffDeGraff.

The article was originally published by The Huffington Post.

Share this article