Isolation: The New Innovator’s Dilemma

It's can be a long, lonely climb

It’s can be a long, lonely climb

 Innovators transform the world around them in big and small ways and while a successful effort can be lauded by pundits, politicians and the public there is a long road to making change happen. That road is also a lonely one and doing things different means more than just innovating and experiencing what it means to be resilient firsthand. 

Clayton Christensen’s seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma has been one of the leading sources of thinking-inspriation in business and social innovation. The book reflects the challenges with those seeking to introduce new ideas, products or services into established markets (or ecosystems) in the aim of addressing both people’s present and future needs.

These innovators — change-makers — risk disrupting the very markets they seek to influence bringing uncertainty for everyone. What innovators bet on is that the changes they introduce will have wide-ranging, positive benefits even if they don’t fully know what those are before setting out. Not surprisingly, these efforts are not always welcome at first and the road toward understanding and acceptance is a long one.

Innovation means doing something new and while we like to talk about new, many don’t actually like doing ‘new’ because that means questioning and changing things. Indeed, change — profound change — in thinking is often vigorously opposed as Albert Einstein pointed out in a quote that is paraphrased as:

Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds

This opposition is a challenge for anyone, but the long slog towards innovation is not only hard on the spirit, it is often a lonely path.

The lonely lives of leaders

To innovate means to lead through ideas and products. We live in a society that admires and elevates the innovators. No better or perhaps inspiring example is the 1997 advertisement from Apple as part of the Think Different campaign in the 1990’s.

What is missing from the platitudes, plaudits and celebrations is the quiet, often lonely, life away from the attention that successful innovations bring (nevermind those that are not deemed successful). To innovate is to lead and to lead is often to be lonely by definition because there are few leading and more following. This leadership by thought or action is often what makes leaders appear creative, innovative and — as Seth Godin affectionately calls being weird. A study discussed in the Harvard Business Review and dissected in Forbes pointed to high rates of loneliness among those at the CEO level, which is among those who “made it”. Consider those who haven’t yet “made it”, who haven’t had their idea “succeed” or take off and it might feel even more lonely.

At a recent workshop I conducted a participant expressed publicly a sense of gratitude for simply having the opportunity to connect with others who were simply open to seeing the world in the same way that they were. In hosting a learning workshop for social innovators a positive byproduct was that attendees who might have been isolated in their activities and thinking in one context could come together in another.

Innovation, because it is new, means that innovators have few peers available to directly commiserate with and may need to find ways to connect on idea, method, philosophy or role, but rarely something direct. That requires extra work in the search and more effort to connect in the finding, which takes time and energy — two things innovators are often short of.

But that doesn’t diminish the value and importance of time and energy and directing it towards efforts to reduce isolation.

Creating deep community

Paul Born, Director of the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement, recently published a book on creating deep community connections as a necessary means of fostering transformative change. Born offers four pillars to a deepening community are:  1) sharing stories, 2) taking the time to enjoy one another, 3) taking care of one another, and 4) working together towards a bigger social goal.

While there is little to argue with here, these pillars rest on the ability to locate, co-locate and create the space to share, enjoy, care and collaborate in the first place. For many innovators this is the hardest part. Where do we find the others like ourselves and how do begin to frame this journey?

There is a reason that innovators have flocked to tools like the Business Model Canvas and the Lean Startup method to help people define, refine and develop their products and mission. It’s easy to point to firms like Apple as examples of clear-focused innovators now, but 20 or 30 years ago it wasn’t so clear. Apple’s overall mission and vision are easy to see lived out in hindsight, not at the beginning. A read of Steve Jobs’ biography illustrates how often his way of approaching the world clashed with nearly everyone and everything and how difficult life was for him.

But Steve Jobs happened to be challenging the world in a place that would come to be known as Silicon Valley. For the last thirty years the San Francisco bay area has been a spark for creative thinking and innovation, one of many hotbeds of business and cultural transformation that Richard Florida documented as home of the Creative Class(es). But not all innovation takes place in these centres and even within such centres it might be hard to connect when an idea is ill-formed or new. We lose out when innovation is only done in certain places by certain people.

(Social) innovators are part of a diffuse and sometimes lost tribe.

Troubled language

If you look at the language that we frame innovation we reveal many of the problems with not only our ideas, but what we do with them. As mentioned in previous posts, we privilege terms like creativity, but often ignore craft. We aspire to be learners, but often don’t like real learning. We tout the role of failure in design and innovation, yet our overloaded cultural baggage attached to the term prevents us from really failing (or asking such tepid questions we don’t really stretch ourselves).

Having access to social media and electronic communities offer a lot and something we didn’t have before, but its very difficult to forge strong, connective bonds mediated through a technological interface. Technology is good at initiating superficial connections or maintaining deeper connections, but not so good at creating deep connections. Those deeper connections as Paul Born points out are the things that sustain us and allow us to do our best work.

The dilemma is how to allocate time and resources in cultivating uniqueness, depth and connecting to similar innovators when that pool is small or integrating more with those in the convention system. Of course innovators need to relate to both groups at some level because an innovation doesn’t grow if we only connect to ‘true believers’, but at different stages it matters how we’re allocating our time, energy and enthusiasm particularly along that journey up Mt. Isolation.

Options

There is no ready answer for this problem. Indeed, the lonely path to being different, weird or constructively challenge the harmful or less effective parts of the status quo may be one of the most wicked ones innovators face.

For those interested in social innovation there are a few examples for those who want to find peers and connect:

  • The Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement (mentioned earlier) has different communities of practice focused on various aspects of community building and social innovation. They host events and have created a vibrant community of learners and action-oriented professionals across Canada and the United States;
  • LinkedIn has a number of topical groups that have evolved on a variety of social and innovation topics that include local, global and topical foci;
  • The Social Innovation Generation Group convenes formal and informal events connecting those working in the social innovation space in the Greater Toronto Area and across Canada;
  • Meetups are self-organized gatherings on virtually every topic under the sun in communities across the globe. Check out and see if there is something near you;
  • In Toronto and New York City, the Centre for Social Innovation is a part co-working space, social action community, and venture incubation support group that connects and enlivens the work that social innovators do. They have many events (many are free and low cost) organized by their members that seek to bring people together and offer skill development. If you’re in Ottawa, check out The Hub. In Calgary? Check out EpicYYC ;  In Vancouver, visit the great folk at the HiVE. Throughout the United States Impact Hub spaces offer innovators options to work and connect and in Cambridge, MA there is the amazing Cambridge Innovation Centre for innovation more broadly. MaRS in Toronto offers another option.
  • Lastly, CENSE Research + Design hosts a series of webinars and free and paid workshops to create capacity for social innovation. For more information visit: www.cense.ca/learning .

References:

Born, P. (2014). Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times (p. 216). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Wheatley, M. (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (3rd. ed., p. 218). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Wheatley, M. (2007). Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time (p. 300). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Wheatley, M. (2010). Perseverance (p. 168). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Photo: Mt. Isolation This Way on Flickr by Tim Sackton used under Creative Commons License. (Thanks for the great shot Tim and making it available for others to use!)

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