Innovation and the Human Spirit

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By Ben Botes, MA, MSc

Source: Newsletter from My 1st Business

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Innovation and the Human Spirit

The importance of innovation has been described in a multitude of ways in recent years: Innovation has displaced quality as the standard for differentiation. Innovation is the only sustainable competitive advantage. Innovation is a necessity for continued existence. No matter how it is portrayed, innovation is understood by today’s vast business audience to be vital to any organisation's success.

Innovation has always been a primary challenge of leadership. Today we live in an era of such rapid change and evolution that leaders must work constantly to develop the capacity for continuous change and frequent adaptation, while ensuring that identity and values remain constant. They must recognise people's innate capacity to adapt and create -- to innovate.

In my own work I am constantly and happily surprised by how impossible it is to extinguish the human spirit. People who had been given up for dead in their organisations, once conditions change and they feel welcomed back in, find new energy and become great innovators

The human capacity to invent and create is universal. Ours is a living world of continuous creation and infinite variation. Scientists keep discovering more species; there may be more than 50 million of them on earth, each the embodiment of an innovation that worked. Yet when we look at our own species, we frequently say we're "resistant to change."

Many people are of course resistant to change due to the perceived fear and the many uncertainties that change might hold.

We know that the only path to creating more innovative workplaces and communities is to depend on one another. We cannot cope, much less create, in this increasingly fast and turbulent world without each other. If we try to do it alone, we will fail. There is no substitute for human creativity, human caring, human will. We can be incredibly resourceful, imaginative, and open-hearted. We can do the impossible, learn and change quickly, and extend instant compassion to those who are suffering. And we use these creative and compassionate behaviours frequently. If you look at your daily life, how often do you figure out an answer to a problem, or find a slightly better way of doing something, or extend yourself to someone in need? Very few people go through their days as robots, doing only repetitive tasks, never noticing that anybody else is nearby. Take a moment to look around at your colleagues and neighbours, and you'll see the same behaviours -- people trying to be useful, trying to make some small contribution, trying to help someone else.

We have forgotten what we're capable of, and we let our worst natures rise to the surface. We got into this sorry state partly because, for too long, we've been treating people as machines. We've forced people into tiny boxes called roles and job descriptions. We've told people what to do and how they should behave. We've told them they weren't creative, couldn't contribute, and couldn’t think.

After so many years of being bossed around, of working within confining roles, of unending reorganisation, reengineering, downsizing, mergers, and power plays, most people are exhausted, cynical, and focused only on self-protection. Who wouldn't be? But it's important to remember that we created these negative and demoralised people. We created them by discounting and denying our best human capacities.

But people are still willing to come back; they still want to work side by side with us to find solutions, develop innovations, and make a difference in the world. We just need to invite them back. We do this by using simple processes that bring us together to talk to one another, listen to one another's stories, reflect together on what we're learning as we do our work. We do this by developing relationships of trust where we do what we say, where we speak truthfully, where we refuse to act from petty self-interest. Many courageous companies, leaders, and facilitators have already developed these processes and relationships. Many pioneers have created processes and organisations that depend on human capacity and know how to evoke our very best.

In my experience, people everywhere want to work together, because daily they are overwhelmed by problems that they can't solve alone. People want to help. People want to contribute. Everyone wants to feel creative and hopeful again.

As leaders, as neighbours, as colleagues, it is time to turn to one another, to engage in the intentional search for human goodness. In our meetings and deliberations, we can reach out and invite in those we have excluded. We can recognise that no one person or leader has the answer, that we need everybody's creativity to find our way through this strange New World. We can act from the certainty that most people want to care about others, and invite them to step forward with their compassion. We can realise that "You can't hate someone whose story you know." We are our only hope for creating a future worth working for. We can't go it alone, we can't get there without each other, and we can't create it without relying anew on our fundamental and precious human goodness.

Ben Botes MBA, MSc.