A few years ago, after the first day of a training I ran for a European organization on “storytelling as a leadership skill,” I asked my client how he thought the session went. The energy in the room had been so positive that I was pretty confident he’d say it went well. And he did. Then came the “but...”
“But your material is too American. Can’t you find some examples from Europe?”
I tried really hard to find some, but I couldn’t. None of the European examples I found were good enough for teaching purposes. As I began to do more and more trainings outside the United States, the question continued to nag at me. Not long after, when developing curriculum for Amani Institute, which we set up as a truly global organization from the beginning, I ran into the same problem again and again.
If we were to imagine a library with all the available literature on social innovation written in English (for a global audience)—sorted by geography, not genre—I’d bet than nine out of 10 shelves would be labeled “United States” and one would be labeled “Rest of the World.”
The fact is that although thought leaders in the United States do a great job of sharing emerging thinking about social innovation, there is an unmistakably American flavor to it. In addition to a standard style and tone, most case studies cited (apart from Grameen Bank and Aravind Eye Hospital) are from US-based nonprofits and social enterprises. Why is this a problem? Because there is great social change work happening around the world that innovators aren’t learning about. Another less fair but no less important reason is that many people around the world instinctively bristle when they feel confronted with an over-reliance on things American. It is simply the reality, and working in education means meeting people where they are.
With this in mind, I was greatly intrigued to find a book called Orbit-Shifting Innovation: The Dynamics of Ideas that Create History in India. I snapped it up and dived in. Written by innovation consultants Rajiv Narang and Devika Devaiah, Orbit-Shifting Innovation puts forward a structured approach to overcoming the obstacles to innovation and generating innovative solutions in the private, public, and social sectors. To my delight, the authors kept the uniquely Indian numbering system of “lakhs” (hundreds of thousands) and “crores” (hundreds of lakhs) rather than “millions”—it was clearly written for an Indian audience. The case studies in the book came not just from India, but also from Kenya, Mongolia, Tibet, Philippines, Brazil, and Switzerland.
The content is excellent, and there are several insights worth their weight in gold for anyone who works in innovation, including:
- Innovation has to be steered—it cannot be managed or mandated from above. By definition, there is no formula, only a sense of direction. Thus, innovation is a leadership journey much more than a management one. And what most people don’t realize is that the process of taking an innovation to market requires as much innovative thought as generating the idea in the first place.
- Most true innovations start with the challenge or problem, not with the idea itself. Beginning with the challenge forces you to think outside the box in a way that starting with an idea does not. This resonated with my experience of social entrepreneurship, where too many young entrepreneurs (and the incubators that support them) go headfirst into the “big idea” without asking deeper questions about the nature of the problem they are trying to solve. At Amani Institute, we have been guilty of this too.
- Perhaps the most insightful exploration in the book is the extremely personal nature of conceiving and implementing something new. The core challenge in thinking innovatively is breaking through one’s own mental models (unquestioned assumptions or the boundaries in our minds) of what something should be like. For example, can you name a movie with drop-dead gorgeous aliens who were technologically backward? No, because we have an ingrained mental image of what aliens are supposed to be—smarter but uglier than us. It would take a very brave filmmaker to go against that image. And because it is so hard to overcome our mental models, what constrains innovation is not usually organizational or financial risk, but personal (reputational) risk on the part of senior management. This leads to the under-resourcing of innovation. Since managers want to protect themselves, they usually assign less essential staff to work on innovation part-time. But, as the authors of the book argue: “Spare people working in spare time don’t create history … [they] create a disaster by design.”
Yet as excellent as the content is—and this brings us back to one of the core challenges of finding good non-American literature on social innovation—Orbit-Shifting Innovation is, unfortunately, very poorly written. It took three months of diligent reading to plow through the awkward and clunky jargon that litters its pages. Here is one fairly representative sentence: “Proactively lower the threshold of decision-making by pre-answering predictable doubts.” I think what they mean is “anticipate your boss’s objections”. What I might call “re-iterating based on feedback,” they call “in-market versioning and fissioning.” Even the premise of the book—the study of disruptive products and services—is expressed in engineer-speak (“orbit-shift”) rather than the more straightforward “breakthrough innovation.” And once you choose “orbit-shift” as your core concept, you’re stuck with writing it all the time. Imagine reading “orbit-shift” ten times on one page—sometimes as a noun, sometimes as a verb, sometimes as an adjective. Then imagine reading nearly 400 pages of that. For two deeply experienced and insightful professionals to write as though they were trying to impress their college professor was astonishing. It is also why very few people will actually read this important book.
Even though I hail Orbit-Shifting Innovation as a must-read for those working globally in innovation, the way it is written makes me wonder if it is the exception that proves the rule. As a global educator with an increasing desire to find non-American literature, I’m curious what my colleagues in social innovation have come across. Can we curate a list of non-American literature on social innovation here? Our field needs the diversity.