This Revolution Will Be Improvised

A few weeks ago, I had the great privilege of visiting London, including appointments with senior advisors to Number 10 Downing Street and the UK Cabinet. There, inside the wood-paneled room of Number 10, surrounded by paintings of icons and trophies of the past, the main message I heard was: We cannot do this alone. Government must become an enabler if we are to solve these complicated problems. As Britain enters a painful triple-dip recession, creativity is a necessity.

At a time when the most risk-averse sector—government—needs to become an enabler, unfortunately leadership from other sectors is in short supply. Levels of trust in corporations and the media hover in the low double digits according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. And, the connective tissue to facilitate cross-sector collaboration barely exists.

Hold up. The words above alone even sound boring.

How are we supposed to reinvent America if we’re all so mired in “theories of change” and abstractions?

Who ever committed their blood, sweat, toil, and tears to a theory of change?

We’ve become such a rationally driven society that we’ve forgotten what got us here in the first place: the inventors, tinkerers, entrepreneurs, and innovators like Thomas Edison, Harriet Tubman, and Steve Jobs.

These people led with their hearts, had passion for exploring the unknown, and validated their hypotheses through many iterations. Examine the research on innovation and creativity, from Peter Drucker to Clayton Christensen to Keith Sawyer, and you’ll find that ingenious ideas almost never hatch fully-baked. Experimentation and often painstaking learning underlies most great inventions and innovations.

America wasn’t invented by those afraid of failure.

As Edison said, “I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

At Pixar, cofounder and president Ed Catmull describes the creative process on a movie there as going from “suck to non-suck.” Story artists at Pixar use an average of over 50,000 storyboards when making a new film.

Whether Jobs, Edison, or Pixar animators, these are experimental innovators who use little bets to work toward an imagined future.

So how can it be that the world of philanthropy has become so risk averse and afraid of failure when it’s just the moment for leadership?

Government is waiting.

When Pixar director Brad Bird was told he couldn’t possibly manage the complexities of making The Incredibles, he issued a call to arms at Pixar:

“Give us the black sheep. We want the artists who are frustrated. We want the ones who have a different way of doing things that nobody’s listening to.”

What the world needs more of right now isn’t analysis and planning. The world needs more “black sheep,” people who are willing to embrace their own humanity, creativity, and voices by using small, affordable bets to learn and lead a new way forward.

Much like the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Morgans stepped up to lead the country forward after eras of extravagance, America desperately needs a lot more courage and creativity from its philanthropists.

The good news is that there’s a whole generation of socially-minded entrepreneurs just waiting in the wings. They’ve got the insights. They’ve got the energy and resilience. And, they’ve already learned to collaborate well, since they have no other choice.

These social entrepreneurs just need more courageous people to stand up and bet on them a bit ahead of the curve. They need more black sheep.

This revolution will be improvised.


Peter Sims is an entrepreneur and award-winning author specializing in disruptive innovation and creativity. You can find him on Twitter @petersims. Hear Peter speak about the themes from his book Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries at our upcoming national conference, Pursuing Results, and join the discussion at #CEP13.

2013 Conference, conferences, goals, role of philanthropy
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