Pursuing a career as a social innovator
March 24th, 2010
I’m just getting started as a social entrepreneur. Do you have any advice for someone like me who plans on making a life long career in this field?
I’m going to seize on what I think is the most interesting phrase in the reader’s question: “life long career.”
There is a difference in the advice that I’d give to someone who is trying to make a particular new social innovation happen and the advice I’d offer someone who is pursuing a career as a social innovator. Put somewhat simplistically, the former is looking for clues on how to score big; the latter is looking for tips on staying in the game over the long haul – even after she has put some initial points on the board.
Both accomplishments are extremely difficult and rare. Scoring big takes an enormous amount of luck, timing, that one creative spark, raw entrepreneurial energy, and more. It especially takes a willingness to fail, as the truly big idea rarely emerges right away.
I think the other bloggers on this site are all folks in the midst of this social innovation process (out of the collection, only Kiva’s Matt Flannery could be called out as someone who has actually “scored big”). In my opinion, that’s the beauty of this Social Edge blogging community: it’s comprised of folks who are trying to get on the scoreboard for the first time.
But the reader asked about a “life long career” as a social innovator. All of us on this site – myself included – are simply too young to give personal advice here.
“Life long career” implies one is succeeding at multiple ideas over time, and this is no easy thing even when the individual successes are modest ones. My home, Silicon Valley, is filled with entrepreneurs who have never been able to follow up on an initial hit with another one.
The question of what is involved in becoming a life long innovator is a meaningful one to me personally. That’s why I’ve been reading about Henry Ford.
You would be hard pressed to name an innovator who made a greater social impact in the 20th century than Henry Ford. He of course was responsible for bringing the automobile into the hands of the average consumer. The central lever of all that impact was the Model T, the first mass produced automobile in history.
This innovation has profoundly changed how human beings interact with each other, with work, with leisure, with geography, with the built and the natural environment, and more. You really can’t score any bigger than the Model T.
However, one could also make the argument that despite the enormous scale of impact Henry Ford achieved with his innovation, he never actually developed a life long career as a social innovator.
One of the best books on the early history of the American auto industry is David Halberstam’s. According to the book, Henry Ford’s second half of his career was marked by his resistance to anything but more of the same. He insisted that the Model T was all Americans wanted or needed, long after competitors had introduced new features and styling. He circumvented innovative efforts by those within his own company, and set in motion decades of institutional behavior that resisted change and risk taking.
What does all this mean? It seems to me that it is a lot harder to pursue a life long career as an innovator than it is to just do it once, no matter how successful that one innovation was. Indeed, it may very well be that one’s success – especially the more outsized it is – actually blinds you to the traits needed to continue innovating.
I don’t have an extensive catalogue of those traits but judging by the Henry Ford example, it seems that humility is critical. The moment you feel like you’ve got a monopoly on the truth over and above everyone else is probably the moment your lifelong career as a innovator starts to end.