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Social Innovation and the Social Innovator

I’m reading an article by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive at the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, entitled The Process of Social Innovation. It’s a great read for many reasons, one of which is his ability to draw the connections between social innovation and the social innovator.

He states that In charities and social enterprises, the founders who were just right for the organization during its early years are unlikely to have the right mix of skills and attitudes for a period of growth and consolidation. Often founders cling on too long, and trustees, funders and stakeholders do not impose necessary changes … Indeed, growth in all sectors nearly always involves outgrowing founders. Wise founders therefore put in place robust succession plans, and very few successfully remain in executive roles.”

I wonder how this is linked to his earlier comment in the paper about the individual vs. the collective. He encourages the reader to understand the question of who drives social innovation: “Individuals are the carriers of ideas rather than originators. If we ask which innovations had the most impact over the past half century, the role of individuals quickly fades into the background. The far-reaching movements of change, such as feminism or environmentalism, have involved millions of people and dozens of intellectual and organizational leaders, many of whom have had the humility to realize that they were often as much following as directing changes in public consciousness.”

Mulgan’s thinking bodes well for those questioning The Problem with Creative Genius like Christina Bagatavicius of CultureSpotting. She wonders why the lone genius myth has been so hard to shake, arguing that “Given that we live in a complex and information rich world, its time to step away from the megalomaniac paradigms and leap into the arms of collective genius.” She, like Mulgan, sees bright spots – “In fields such as science, business, and design – this is an emerging trend that continues to gain traction. The folks at NASA have gone out on a limb and pointed out that the future of space exploration depends on bringing together an interdisciplinary swat team. Within the field of innovation strategy, one need only look at design firms like IDEO to recognize that a think tank approach to problem solving is part of the new world order. And god bless Malcolm Gladwell for finally debunking the whole, ‘you’re just born with’ schtick.”

S0, maybe we are starting to shake it. Here in Canada we can point to initiatives like SiG, Evergreen, and Waterlution that “offer passionate people the space, process and inspiration to engage in multi-stakeholder dialogue” where the collective genius wins out over the lone genius every time … creatively, strategically, and effectively. Of course with every 1 example of collaborative problem-solving there are 10 examples of the opposite – the master of the universe with all the right answers up his sleeve.

But with the likes of Mulgan, Bagatavicius, Gladwell, NASA and others really listening to the people and problems around them – paying attention to systems – there is a new zeitgeist starting to take shape with its roots deep in the wisdom of systems-thinking which has always recognized that everything we know, everything everyone knows, is only a model and must be exposed to the open air where others can poke holes in it, add to it, subtract from it and then, together, can come up with truly innovative, responsive, grounded, and flexible solutions.

For a deeply intelligent, poetic, and wise take on this question, have a read through Parker Palmer’s Autumn where he talks about a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox. The universe is messy and our navigational systems will only be as effective as our ability to wade through that mess and learn to hold opposites – perspectives, ideas, contradictions – together. And no one can do that alone. This perspective requires collective thinking and the melding of different, sometimes seemingly contradictory, viewpoints. As Palmer eloquently states “opposites do not negate each other – they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out.”

I’m not sure how I got from Geoff Mulgan @ NESTA to Parker Palmer @ The Centre for Courage and Renewal but it was an interesting journey for me. Hopefully it will help spark your own thinking about the role of the innovator in social innovation and the implications for far-reaching movements of change. 

P.S. After writing this Michael Lewkowitz of Igniter sent me an article called Silicon Valley is Stupid with an interesting point that further delves into this fascinating topic on the role of the innovator in social innovation: “Let’s start with the startups. You might think that most successful startups begin with some genius’s brilliant idea. The genius shares this idea with a trusted investor who provides money to hire a team. They work really hard, have a big launch and become a success. But this is not how big companies begin … Successful startups often begin with no idea at all. They start with some friends who simply enjoy building things together, without any specific idea of what they are going to build or how they are going to make money at it. It sounds silly, but that’s exactly how Hewlett-Packard began. Two nerds in a garage … Flickr began by working on something else altogether. Twitter came out of the train wreck of a podcasting startup.” Bottom line? ” The intelligence is distributed, and it works.”