My recent visit to Nicaragua was filled with innovations. They weren’t to be found in the airports or airliners that I used in flying south (though Heaven knows both of those entities could use some major innovative help), but rather in the lives and activities I encountered during my week in very rural Nicaragua. The notion of innovation constituted one of the main themes of the week, whether in the lives of the workshop participants with whom I learned or in some of the community development initiatives I observed later in the week. Surrounded as I was with such creative consciousness during the week, I’ve given lots of thought to the idea of innovation, and especially where it comes from.
Of course, those who think about innovation begin from relatively different perspectives; one person’s innovation is another’s past practice. During the workshop, for instance, the participants separated into smaller groups for more personal discussions. My group was assigned the task of identifying one or two specific innovations that would serve their cooperatives going forward, an idea or two which might elevate the cooperatives above their past performances, build competitive advantage in the marketplace, contribute something creatively tangible that would constitute a significant break with past protocols. Our group members represented a wide range of creativity.
New process suggestions surfaced almost faster than they could be recorded. One coop member spoke of identifying a new contact for the market being served. Another related a strategy very specific to the non-profit nature of his organization. Someone else was “selling” the group on an outcome which seemed to focus primarily on satisfying the assignment at hand. Each concept had value in its own right; ideas always possess intrinsic worth even if they hold limited practical salience. But the drift of the discussion felt as though the participants were responding only from the places one might expect; they spoke from the confines of their respective experiences, rather than from a broader, more far-reaching point of view. Therein lies the constraint that they, and most of us, stumble over whenever seeking new horizons. Innovation visits most often when we’re out of our “comfort zones,” and yet that is where most of our past experiences occurred.
Innovation may, in fact, strike like a bolt of lightning. An idea can materialize at the least likely moment and yet carry with it impact of unimaginable proportions. But who knows what prompts such fortunate instants and, indeed, how would any of us ever plan for purely lucky moments? They are always the exception rather than the rule. To wait for innovation to strike is akin to playing the lottery: it could happen, but probably not.
Rather, cultivating innovation is a learned habit, a way of thinking, an exercise that stretches an imagination and lifts a vision through the discipline of hard effort. Yes, there are methodologies specifically designed to unleash innovative solutions; competitive organizations around the world have relied upon such activities for years. But like any exercise done well, the exertions require persistence, patience and the practices which are most likely to produce something bold and new. And for starters, would-be practitioners have to allow themselves the courage and the spaces to act unconventionally. Those requisites seemed to be just too heavy to introduce to our little workshop conversation, and especially from a gringo. And in any case, the bravery has to come from somewhere within each of them, not from an outside presence.
I don’t pretend to recognize all of the obstacles in Nicaraguan life that might be at work to prevent such transformational possibilities, be they cultural, historical, political or social. I certainly cannot fault my workshop group-mates for reciting the small improvements of their daily work as examples of dynamic transformation. On this topic, Winds of Peace can only continue to sponsor workshop and training opportunities that invite “innovating innovations.” When the courageous moment arrives, something learned in such gatherings can take root and innovation can grow. In bringing rural producers together to speak with one another and share their issues, we encourage our partners to “lift the veil” for themselves in discovering the full breadth of their own visions and possibilities.
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad objective for each of us, no matter how comfortable our stations in life….