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Finding the Innovation Sweet Spot

I talked to an entrepreneur the other day about Lumads of Mindanao, the indigenous peoples  of the Southern Philippines he works with. He told me how Lumad farmers struggled to accept the new ways of farming. They may accept a new idea, but when they find it hard to integrate the new practice into old ones, they default back to their previous ways of doing things. 

When I worked with the Wa tribe in the ‘90s, I saw an entire generation of leaders who were in a similar mindset. They would slip back into the worn wagon tracks of what they had done in the past, even after they saw, at some level, the value of the new path or idea. 

During that season, we ran a discipleship and bible training center for young Wa students and sent them back to their region. We found that they were frequently better innovators than other locals who had college degrees. That is because we taught them to actively think for themselves and problem solve. 

Innovation is often used a a catch-all, somewhat vague term in the business world. It is closely related to this spirit of entrepreneurship, another often vague term. Our team tries to bring these concepts into the non-profit and missions space that we function within. An innovative and entrepreneurial team member for us means someone who is:

  • Dynamic rather than static
  • A resourceful problem solver
  • Courageous for risk
  • Disruptively action oriented
  • A curious learner
  • Future-focused
  • A positive thinker

We’ve come to know that if we want to make an impact in the communities we serve, we need certain people like this on our team, and you do too! Otherwise, we will get stuck in maintenance mode at best, or in a gradual decline. Not every team member needs to be 100% wired this way, but impact requires a shared understanding of a culture of innovation.

So how do we build cultures of innovation within our teams and within the communities we serve? Let’s look at some cultures of innovation in the world today for some answers. 

Israel has one of the highest innovative culture in the world. Common ideas behind their capacity to innovate are:

  • Children are taught to accept and leapfrog from failure.
  • Israel had to innovate from its second birth in 1948 just to survive.
  • 18-year-olds must join the army and are trained in ethics of self-reliance, discipline and problem-solving. 
  • The army also produces powerful social networks across disciplines where new ideas can emerge.
  • Israelis have wealth, and they invest it in R&D.
  • Israel focuses on emerging tech, the future. 
  • Their ancient education practices are question-based
  • Generational discipleship/mentorship is built into the culture

“Chutzpah” is an Israeli word for exploring innovation. It describes a culture of being a contrarian or an “out-of-the-box” thinker while having the courage to also challenge status quo and accept failed attempts.

We believe that for radical change to come to a community or region, a younger generation needs to be given the tools to be innovators. Many of the above examples from Israel’s culture point towards this truth. 

Because the older generations tend to be resistant to integrating new practices, we adapted to focus on children and emerging leaders in the younger generation. INfire is excited about working with its younger generation leaders to help them develop an entrepreneurial mindset. This is critical because many indigenous children grow up with a more fatalistic mindset that things are stuck the way they are. 

Fatalism is a belief that people have little or no control over their life circumstances. This is like having your creative synapses superglued shut. Fatalism is a reason that poverty can be a mindset. It is not the only reason people experience poverty, but it is a common issue that  must be addressed.

Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, talks about growth mindsets and fixed mindsets— the difference between seeing talents and abilities as pliable or fixed. Some of her studies indicate that leaders with fixed mindsets are less likely to develop the potential of their employees. It is not a far jump to see how this idea of mindset connects to the communities and children that INfire serves.

Community, or collective based societies, characteristically are more loyal but may struggle with innovation; because, permanence of custom guides the group while individualistic thinkers can chart unique paths. If you nurture a blend of both individualistic thought and community, that is actually an innovation sweet spot. Israelis likely fit into that sweet spot mold as community-oriented middle easterners who question everything.

How are you innovating or helping mentor an entrepreneurial spirit in others? Our global world is entering into a season of massive change and challenge, and it will take all of our creative talent and humility to listen to God and others to pull us through.