Innovation’s Grand Illusion

This weekend brought with it an opportunity to background-think over the contents of design thinker Manoj Kothari’s talk to my SLP class.

We understand and appreciate innovation thanks to its promise of improbable outcomes. Occasionally, an entrepreneur’s first attempt hits the mark as a wild success. The norm is that entrepreneurs wish to learn to repeat the innovation process through practice.

No one’s done more work to dispel the hero myth than Richard Bach. As I mulled over what I’d learned, I made an odd connection back to a parable* written by him. It is a parable I’ve enjoyed telling myself over and over again which adequately explains how innovation suspends existing beliefs, allowing the re-imagination of the old as new.

The story is a short story of a creature that lives in a colony at the bottom of the river bed. Through the story, I believe the author wishes the reader to observe directly the nature of change; pay as little attention to the emphasis on the apparent heroism and other words that bring with them the unknown, or mystery.

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all — young and old, rich and poor, good and evil — the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current was what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed against the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom!”

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the messiah, come to save us all!”

And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

But they cried the more, “Savior!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a savior.

– From Illusions, Richard Bach.

When explaining a concept, a teacher’s intent is to share a complete understanding of the idea with the student. They often risk over simplifying it, or over exaggerating it and putting it out of reach of the student. I’d love to know how you felt about any insight that you receive through the parable.

* Parable’s are simple stories that I’ve found extremely useful in capturing wisdom and its context.