Allegra Jordan: Resilience, friendship, and innovation at the margins
What do we learn about innovation (and ourselves) from working at the margins?
Innovation is not only a matter of seeing new ideas come to life. It can also make us better people.
I have worked with innovation in large and small corporations, but for that past three years I’ve worked with faith-based and secular organizations serving people whose income puts them in the “bottom billion.” These groups can teach us a lot about innovation.
First, there are things we know about innovation that apply regardless of income level. Good ideas come to the market through a fairly specific process: a group cultivates a pipeline of good ideas, judges them, and then brings them to market (for more on this see here).
But that presents only a shallow vision of what is going on. The innovation process is cognitively challenging because it requires creative people to interact in a specific way over a period of time. People are notoriously unpredictable. They have feelings that change and change and change.
The latest wave of innovation thinking focuses on behaviors that help creative communities flourish. Two are Google’s famous “nine principles” and those of !WhatIf? Innovation, Europe’s top independent innovation firm.
These lists of specific behaviors omit two spiritual matters that need to be discussed more. These are resilience and friendship. People at all income levels need friendship and resilience, but we are not often challenged in the way our friends who live at the margins are.
First, resilience. The honest truth is that most great ideas don’t come to life. So if you are going to be in innovation work, you should sort out what you think about failure.
This is where resilience comes in. What if your key innovator can’t get over failure? What would help a team come back from a bruising defeat? Why do some people collapse and others renew? Resilience remains a mystery, but is becoming an important measurement tool. Studies are even beginning to measure post-traumatic stress resilience, not just disorders.
Teams at the margins have a lot of practice with failure. They’re vulnerable and often taken advantage of, so unfortunately they get a lot of practice getting up after being knocked down. And when you practice getting up, you can get pretty good at it.
One such resilient group is the Concerned Children and Youth Association (CCYA), a youth-led community in Lira, Uganda. Children who are former slaves and soldiers commit to building a community that will not let evil have the final word. They live in a region with one of the highest suicide rates in the world, but these kids talk about hope amidst terrifying problems.
Their resilience is contagious. If they can get up, perhaps I can too.
Which brings us to friendship. The CCYA kids have a hard goal: “Every child and youth is my brother or sister.” Try to live that out (especially when the child in question is your child and he just hit puberty). People can’t innovate alone. It takes a team because no one person has all the skills and answers.
In this case, friendship has helped make rebuilding a community bearable. And international friendships allow CCYA to glean ideas from different places and then to advocate for or implement change. These kids are effective. Recently they were both teachers and students at the Duke Center for Reconciliation’s Great Lakes Institute.
What is the value of these Ugandan kids’ innovation, with its equal parts of friendship and resilience?
We know what the cost of genocide is. And we could hold a Dutch auction and find out how much countries are willing to pay to avoid the next one. While priceless comes to mind, economists would be able to tell us a specific number, and it will be in the tens of millions of dollars. And for such contributions, the U.N. gave the group’s co-founding patron its human rights award.
These are clearly innovation behaviors worth emulating.
Allegra Jordan is a senior consultant at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.