On the drivers of innovation – an ethical view

Before an idea is conceived, and way before is even put to practice with the chance of success, there is a tension in the usual way of doing things that enormously dissatisfies a small group, or even an only individual. Satisfaction usually refers to a measure implying an average of a group. Not everybody completely satisfied and a few dissatisfied to a degree, but overall categorising the group as sufficiently ‘happy’. But, for the few coping with dissatisfaction, it can become a trigger of enormous creative energy. Taking something from good to great might not mean the same, as motivational driver, than taking something from deeply unsatisfying to just average or somewhat good. When someone needs to right a wrong that is a living feature of their everyday, and push that person into a defensive mode, invention and innovation becomes, not a nice to have, but the only answer to improve life experience.

The things that drive a few to a corner and make them react can be quite different. Usually a combination of economic, social, and ethical aspects that can cross an individual tolerance threshold, and sets on fire a flurry of activity towards change and disruption with a tenacity and determination, that in most, is only reserved for life preservation activities.

Usually, when describing the aspects that command a new product or service the narrative becomes very rational — always after the fact. A typical one; “X and Y became conscious of an opportunity, sized the market, understood the social trend around it, and designed something that disrupted the incumbent, who never saw it coming”, or this one; “after a few tools of a process became simpler and more accessible to a public ready to experiment with them, an innovator came up with a simpler, cheaper, clever way to go around the problem, and his innovation is now acquired for a hefty sum by the big company in the sector”. All very straightforward on the economical, and some even referring to the social aspect as a market trend, “an unsatisfied need”, but very shallow on the vision for long-term consequences where a matter of principle usually go before just business. When the entrepreneur main call to action is the social aspect, and the enterprise is just a by-product to make change happen, the initiative belongs to what some call social entrepreneurism where the profit is justified as long as it brings the desired societal result.

Sometimes the ethical dilemmas of a single person can drive its need for a change, without an intended vision of how to change society, or really focusing on the group whatsoever. Because is a wrong to the individual, and the ideal one wants to live: “I invent” to do things my own way. In this category, the driving aspect is not economic, neither a social one, is an individual discomfort that creates a vacuum that needs to be filled with something that might not even exist. This is the hardest one to reduce to failure and leave aside, as one can say a venture is not economically viable, therefore needs to be wind down; or a venture has not reached the group impact it was looking for, and therefore needs to be discontinued; but when it comes to one individual, a whole system of beliefs will need to be changed before they can give up trying.

For many innovators and innovations, the process has not been the rational story we used to get told. First and foremost, they were doing it for themselves and what they believe was wrong and needed to be corrected; the company or economical aspect was only a way to keep it independent and under their control — as usually without the money to defend a change an individual is left with a system designed to keep things as they are; and once something start to scale up and other people see the better side of the innovation, the possibilities for societal impact can drive a core group of early innovators to do something for a bigger purpose than just their individual possibilities of profit.

It seems the core of innovation is deeply individual, and only surrounded with a profit or societal motive to make change easier and at a grander scale. The deep discomfort of one individual could be enough to ignite consequences far beyond what his original intention was. After the fact, or after success, many will say they had a vision of how they wanted the world to be around them, but in most of the cases this is just a realization made possible by success, where most of the aspects of it, where unintended or basically random in nature. This is a problem for socialpreneurs as they want to control the consequences of their actions in a bigger group, which does not allow for any control. Societal change is hard, but it seems harder where your main intent is just that. Is actually more possible to make people cooperate and communicate in different levels of society with a profit orientation, that by its motive tries to remain independent to the largest of groups, compared to a product specifically aiming at an agenda that is only appealing to some, disregarding how good it might be.

In a way, the only things that can be controlled in innovation are the ones at the reach of the individual that is looking for the change. This is the space where principles or ethics becomes important, even before anything scales up, even before the first employee or first sale. At the very beginning one needs to assess not what the change is looking like but mostly why he wants to do it. Questions like:

– If many people likes what I will be doing, what is the foreseeable impact of success? Is it right to scale up?
– What is likely to replaced from my invention? What are the good and the bad side from this disruption?
– Who are the customers for this market, do I want to be selling to them? Is it appealing to create a relationship with this people through my product?
– How big it needs to be to become successful? Am I aiming at something impossible?
– Can I start by myself and keep it independent along the way while adding resources? How much control of the vision could I have?
– How desperate I am to get my hands on the product and use it myself? How right is to create it disregarding how many people are interested at present?

Efforts around innovation can be a river, a flow where the innovator is just swept in, and quickly loses track of why he started the thing in the first place. It then becomes just a numbers exercise, or a rhetorical one where empty promises are made with no real bigger purpose in mind. For many, these are still appealing as long as money and public recognition is there, for others the ultimate judge of their efforts is still themselves. No matter how big and complex the venture turns, they review past actions on the basis of the original answers to questions like the ones above, and can even shut down a whole company if it doesn’t look right to them anymore. Their motivation driver remains internal, no matter how much fame, money, or recognition they could get.

Only the ones absolutely decided to change things their own way, and that understand the consequences of good and bad actions, have a place in history of not only commerce, but also in the hearts of a generation that witness the rise of their creations.

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” Friedrich Nietzsche

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