Every year innovators from across the world gather in a remote forest camp located in a notoriously rainy corner of Britain for the Do Lectures. This year, pioneers of microfinance, 3D printing, and design shared the small wooden stage with salt makers, surfers, and farmers, in a unique mix of frontline innovation and folk. Speakers were asked to give the “talk of their lives” (in 20 minutes) to the small audience of 70 attendees who had applied and paid for their place in the tent. Speakers and attendees ate together at long wooden tables, baked together under a woodland canopy, and drank together in a tiny candlelit pub—in an attempt to move from thinking to collaboration. This groundbreaking conference armed me with many valuable insights into innovation, but also taught me some unexpected lessons about doing…
1. Be Weird. Why does no one usually talk about this? Why isn’t there more about weirdness in articles on innovation? Is there some conspiracy of silence against change and the strange? If you innovate, at first people think you’re weird. Period. There are the awkward meetings, perplexed relatives, baffled friends trying not to raise an eyebrow. You have to get used to feeling a bit like an “emo” teenager in a school full of cheerleaders—or vice versa. I asked Mohammad Al-Ubaydli, who is pioneering digital health care through Patients Know Best, about what the doctors he interviewed in his years of software development thought of him. “Weird,” he laughed. “Yes, they thought I was weird.”
2. Moan. Generally at events people try to out-dazzle each other and show the world their greatest hits. But at the Do Lectures it was warts ‘n’ all. Just as inspiring as the lectures were the one-to-one talks, a few glasses of wine in, when speakers would share honestly the toughness, the difficulty, their struggles, and the uncertainty. To hear that people doing amazing things don’t always feel amazing was strangely inspiring. Somehow empathizing with their difficulties put their achievements in reach. I’m no advocate of complaining, but sometimes being honest about our vulnerabilities can inspire more than we might think.
3. Start before you’re ready. The Do Lectures took place in the beautiful fforest camp, all exquisite geodesic domes, log burning stoves, reindeer hides, and a hidden sauna. The craft and artistry of the place was breathtaking. But the thing I loved most about fforest, is that it’s not quite finished yet. Walk up the hill, through the gardens, and you’ll discover old dusty barns, a boarded up house, and some rusty machinery. I loved that the two can coexist together. So often I don’t begin projects because everything isn’t ready. I think how much we would have lost if the folks at fforest waited until every barn was converted and every wall painted before opening to the public. It’s a great metaphor. Begin now, share what you’ve got, and mend the roofs as you go along.
4. Value learning over knowledge. For me, learning has always been a means to an end. We learn to know things—right? And somewhere deep in my subconscious I thought that when I became a grown-up, I’d stop learning and start teaching (because grown-ups know). Alistair Smith, one of the UK’s leading trainers in modern learning methods, provided a revolutionary perspective on education, helping me see that learning isn’t a sign of immaturity—quite the opposite, actually. He outlined an approach that values the process of learning itself: Learn to learn; knowledge is simply a by-product. “Learn, unlearn, relearn.” The nail in knowledge’s coffin was provided by this Eric Hoffer quote, “In times of change, the learners will inherit the earth, while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
Innovation is necessarily messy. Most of the time it doesn’t take place in gleaming purpose-built labs with groups of geniuses hi-fiving each other as they surf the waves of change. Most of the time it involves flawed human beings making it up as they go along, starting before they are ready, and stumbling along the way.