Nothing to lose
I had the opportunity recently to sit in on a presentation that included footage from one of the recent TED conferences. This one was held in Tanzania. What made it interesting was the inclusion of several people who had solved problems or created solutions from virtually nothing. In one instance, a young man from Malawi had created a windmill to create electricity for his parent's home. He made the windmill by reading a book about windmills and then building the windmill from trash, scraps and spare parts he found or scavenged. Today the small windmill he built creates enough power to run several small appliances and some light bulbs in his parents house. See a short clip about him here.
The story made me think because the facilitator of the program was so overwhelmed by what the young man did. He built the windmill with no oversight, no training and no materials. At the time he built the windmill, he was 14. When you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose and everything to gain, so you'll ask yourself - why not?
Conversely, in many businesses innovation is tough because we've got a lot - a reputation, an existing product line, profits, employees, etc. When you've got everything, you've got everything to lose, so rather than ask the question - "why not?" we start in with "why?" and then find all the reasons not to do something.
There's another piece to this as well. Many innovators or innovation teams will complain about how little they have - too few resources, too little commitment, a lack of funding. Rather than just doing something and proving value, many corporate teams will wait for approval, for funding, for resources. What struck me about this young man, and others like him, is that they did not have the patience to wait. Innovators have this kind of drive.
What can large businesses learn from African innovators? First, you've got something to lose. Improve it or change it before someone else does. Everyone is gunning for your position or product. Sitting safely defended is not a strategy. Take action. Second, stop waiting for the permission, resources and funding. Start doing something. Become inevitable rather than waiting for the inevitable. Where innovation is concerned, we need to find the strength and commitment to act like we've got nothing, and be willing to start with nothing in order to create great change.