Practical Wisdom's Role in Innovation

Here's a joke we like to tell within our company. Question: How many innovators does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Does it have to be a light bulb?

Okay, so it's not a knee-slapper. But you would be amazed how many times people don't ask "does it have to be…?" when confronting an innovation challenge. The problem is similar to the "inside the jar" dilemma we discussed in an earlier column. You can become so used to a certain way of thinking, doing things, and approaching problems that you forget all about what Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz calls "practical wisdom"—looking for the simple (and profitable) solution right in front of you.

And it happens all the time. Consider:

Restaurateurs didn't start what we now know as McDonald's (MCD) and Starbucks (SBUX). Suppliers to those industries did.

If ever there was a perfect entity to create overnight mail, it was the U.S.Postal Service. It didn't, of course.

Xerox Parc—now known as PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center—developed numerous stunning technology innovations over the years, but many of them were turned into products by someone else. Just Google (GOOG) "Xerox Parc" to get an idea.

Policy Barriers

Practical wisdom is sucked out of our brains by the structures, policies, and procedures we put into place in an attempt to make things more efficient, scalable, and safe. These policies are frequently tailored to a low common denominator because of sloth ("If I do what we have always done, I don't have to try something hard") or because we simply don't trust people.

Because we don't want to single out a company, let's use a social issue—foster care—as an example of where good intentions fall victim to absurd practices and where innovation is long overdue.

For the past 10 years, countless sources (published studies, foster care alumni, foster parents, caseworkers, academics, and child welfare professionals) have concluded that the U.S. foster-care system is suffering from apathy and the stifling of practical wisdom—exemplified by a lack of coordination among the thousands of support services.

Despite knowing how underfunded and overworked the public and private agencies are, the majority of U.S. states have not passed legislation to help them access available federal funds that can improve foster care. Most of those overwhelmed agencies haven't done much to change the way they do business, either. Perhaps they feel stretched as it is or are afraid to try something new. Or they worry that forming partnerships will compromise their autonomy.

Following Procedures and Precendents

Whatever the reason, they have resisted getting involved in innovative pilot programs and have refused to apply for, or accept, funding for ideas geared toward developing long-term solutions.

The result? The majority of public and private agencies continue to do things as they always have—putting an emphasis on following procedures and paperwork as opposed to concentrating on a broader solution (with longer-term benefits for each child's welfare). And caseworkers and caregivers become ever more frustrated as the system slowly erodes their passion for changing the life of one kid at a time. They end up following the path of least resistance: "The rules they want me to follow may be dumb, but nobody is going to yell at me if I follow them exactly."

This, by the way, is why we are so excited about the intentions behind the Kinverge foster-care initiative, which has a pilot program under way in Chicago that, if successful, could be rolled out to 28 major U.S. cities. The group bases its program on a platform of forging community-based partnerships that connect existing and underleveraged assets: individuals, corporations, agencies, foundations, local government, and faith-based groups around the needs of children and teens in the foster-care system. It seems to us an excellent example of practical wisdom.

Why and Why Not

Practical wisdom is routed in curiosity, in asking why or why not: "Why do we need to be tethered to a telephone line to make a call?" "Why can't we make a computer we can carry everywhere?"

What kills that spirit? "We have always done it this way." "We tried something like that before, and it didn't work." "They will never go for that." To fight the tendency to cling to precedents in your organization, try these three things:

1. Purge from leadership positions people with "resistance to change." There is no easier way to show what the organization believes in.

2. Provide strategic balance between short-term pressures and long-term desired outcomes. Yep, you have to hit your immediate goals—they are important—but your overarching mission must always be viewed as what's essential.

3. Raise the organization's level of consciousness through storytelling and transparency.

If you do, meaningful progress can prevail sooner rather than later. Especially if you've known for a while that just replacing the light bulb isn't all you truly need.