Mechanics vs. motivation: The two faces of social innovation

It’s been a busy and interesting few weeks, and I’ve met many people interested in many of the subjects which also fascinate me – entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, innovation, Africa, mobile technology and appropriate technology, among others. Being on the road is my equivalent of the town hall meeting, of door-to-door canvassing. It’s a great way – maybe the only way – to stay connected with the grassroots and meet the up-and-coming innovators of the future. I’m beginning to realise I enjoy speaking much more outside tech circles than within them. We need to introduce social mobile to new audiences, after all, rather than continually preach to the converted.

So, what am I learning from all of this? Most of the younger people I meet want stories. Sure, they want to know some of the theory, a little about the technology. But what resonates more than anything is the background to our tools and where we get our drive and motivation from. They want to resonate, to feel closer to the possibilities and potential, to see themselves in our shoes. They want to walk away with “Well, they did it. Why can’t I?”.

This was most apparent during talks to students and faculty at Mills College, the University of San Francisco, Santa Clara University and Stanford, all packed into a three week marathon trip to the West Coast at the end of last month. What struck me were the two approaches I often witnessed to spreading the ‘innovation’ and ‘social entrepreneurship’ message. While one seems to focus on mechanics, the other focuses on motivation. Let me explain.

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One or two of the events I recently attended have focused on the mechanics of innovation and entrepreneurship. This world centres on business models, the quest for data, for metrics and an obsession on measuring impact. Lots of tables, numbers, graphs, theories. The very things which score low on most people’s motivational scale. This quote, from Aaron Sklar at IDEO (which I tweeted from the conference), sums up the downside of this approach perfectly.

There certainly seems to be a mismatch between the way social innovation is taught, and the realities of how most social innovators innovate. The ‘a-ha’ moment innovators-to-be hear about is rarely the discovery of a new metric, or a new business model, or a new way of presenting or collecting data. It’s the realisation that a problem can be solved, and solved in a new way. These answers often come by doing and experiencing, being out in the field, and there are almost always stories behind why the person was there, sometimes how they got there, and what they suddenly saw which gave them their big idea.

If I’m totally honest, I find the mechanical approach a total turn-off. It grinds me down and saps any enthusiasm I have for technology and innovation. That’s not to say it’s not important – it’s vital, in fact – but you can always figure out that stuff later, once you have your big idea. No big idea, no need to worry.

Innovation and entrepreneurship start with passion, so we ought to focus more on that. We can help by speaking about our own interests, passions and stories – which most of us have – and less on the mechanical stuff (some of which, incidentally, includes the actual technology we’ve invented). This is why, I think, people tend to resonate more with individuals who succeed, rather than bigger organisations. Take the Tech Awards last month. Over a dozen people not companies – who have found a way to make a difference. The celebration of their achievements would have been less remarkable if they’d all been housed in resource-rich environments. Innovation out of scarcity is what seems to really excite people.

Al Gore at the Tech Awards. Photo courtesy godutchbaby on Flickr

Al Gore spoke at the Tech Awards gala. After a thirty minute speech not a single person could doubt his passion and commitment to the climate change cause, whether or not you agree with him. And hardly any mention of the intricacies of the science. This was a motivational speech if ever there was one. Somehow, if he’d focused on the mechanics I doubt he’d have had half the impact. Al Gore has taken a complex subject and made it accessible, and that has to be one of his major achievements.

We need to do the same with entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, technology and innovation. These subjects need to be demystified, and we need to put passion back where it belongs. And, in my mind, that’s ahead of just about everything else – business models, graphs and metrics included.

[Related post: “Enabling the inspiration generation“]

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