Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Nothing to lose

Janis Joplin was probably right when she sang "when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose". That's more than just philosophy, it's a mindset. And one that innovators and the firms they work for need to adopt.

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.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:00 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When a person thinks that he has nothing to lose, it sort of erases the fear to act, the fear of failure. After all, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I am just amazed at your windmill example.It reminds me of this one blog entry I read about people who don't know everything seem to be able to look at things from different angles. I think the man not trained to construct a windmill was able to achieve his goal simply because he was willing to try and try again.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Dan Keldsen said...

Jeff - great story. The many stories like these that the TED conference organizers find are just astounding. I really do need to get to one of the live events sometime soon.

One of my recent podcast interviews was with Bruno Giussani (blogging at www.lunchoverip.com), who is the European Director of the TED conferences, among many other things. We discussed some of the amazing leaps of innovation that areas of Africa and other countries around the world are taking - because they are not tied down by the baggage (in this case) of existing infrastructure that needs to be monetized and defended. They can leap straight past innovations that they could never really take advantage of (landlines for example), due to the economics of alternatives that make that burden of investment completely unnecessary.

Having nothing to lose and everything to gain is a great place to be in, and terribly hard to remember to step back into from time to time to fight complacency. Being willing and able to "disrupt yourself" beats the alternative of finding yourself disrupted by an upstart who is still hungry while your organization has moved into passive scrounging mode.

But easier said than done of course...

If it's useful, take a listen to the interview with Bruno and we'll see if we can continue this meme.


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