In Good Times and Bad, Innovation Can’t Wait

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

Every day—while building roads, giving inoculations, sitting at computer screens—individuals are quietly thinking:  “I know a better way to do this.”  Or:  “I could create something new that would make this easier for everyone.”

And then they go back to work, never transforming their thoughts into action.  Why does this happen, and how can we unleash these hidden ideas?

Especially in times of crisis and uncertainty, innovation can be stifled by hesitancy to risk.  People are tempted to hunker down in their cubicles until the storm passes. Yet that could be the most dangerous course. 

As entrepreneurs know, timing matters in launching a new business, or improving an existing one.  If you wait too long, your great idea may become irrelevant.

Yet many workers wait until a worst-case scenario—such as a layoff or corporate bankruptcy—leaves little choice but to finally take a risk. Anecdotes abound of people who say losing their jobs was “the best thing that ever happened to me” because they finally had the impetus to follow their dreams.

But that’s an impetus no one should wait for.  Innovation is the engine that powers cultural development and economic growth—and when an idea sits stagnant, that engine stalls.

To get it moving again means fixing a number of paralyzing misperceptions.  The Kauffman Foundation’s 2008 Economic Crisis Survey reports that seventy-one percent of Americans believe the economic crisis has made it more difficult to become an entrepreneur.  While half of respondents saw a market for their ideas, only a quarter would consider starting a business within the next five years; even taking into account the economic crisis, this may be an excess of caution.

“The study shows a gulf between opportunities and those willing to seize them,” the survey reports.  Ironically, in this same survey, the majority said they trusted entrepreneurial leadership to be the force for economic revitalization and survival. 

To transform economic crisis into success requires more ordinary citizens seeing the world the way entrepreneurs do:  perceiving the opportunity in the risk.  In a World Bank study in China, for instance, entrepreneurs saw economic instability as far less of a problem than did non-entrepreneurs; the former were more worried about tax law. 

Of course, great opportunity does not necessarily require huge risk.  “American entrepreneurs work progressively; Russian entrepreneurs look for a breakthrough,” observed Sergey Borisov, president of a Russian public organization of entrepreneurs, during a Russian-American entrepreneurial forum.  Regardless of nationality, countless entrepreneurs have found that relatively small risks and incremental progress can yield large results. Many successful entrepreneurs got where they are today by doing so; they innovated based on processes and science they are familiar with. I encourage you too read some of the profiles on our website of entrepreneurs who started during economic downturns.

Now more than ever, it is vital to support entrepreneurial innovators who are willing to take risks with the resources and connections to make it happen.  Striking out on your own does not have to mean going it alone.  Despite the stereotype of long hours spent working solo, entrepreneurs often find they network more, not less, as they create new businesses.  Many form international alliances in which they can share strategies, get inspiration and learn smart ways to manage risk.

One of these new communities, www.unleashingideas.org, connects entrepreneurs at all levels from around the world.  It is being launched as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week, held annually the third week of November in more than 75 countries.  A visit here or with other like-minded innovators is a way of making that first move out of the cubicle to turn a great idea into a reality.

And there is no better time than now – especially if you’re already employed.  In its research study, “The Entrepreneur Next Door,” the Kauffman Foundation reported that people in the United States who already hold full- or part-time jobs are actually more likely to venture into entrepreneurship.  Many find opportunities to work within their current position to make their ideas happen, transforming and strengthening their places of employment, as the Japanese corporate model has taught.

In uncertain times like these, we need to redefine notions of risk and opportunity, and we must embrace insecurity as a necessary pathway to a brighter future.  After all, in today’s economic climate, a secure position is a relative term.  Our global economy needs massive infusions of new ideas and entrepreneurs with the discipline to develop them.  Innovators who are already employed and are willing to dare will be the ones who lead the way out of economic danger and toward greater prosperity for all of us.

In the words of Goethe, “The dangers of life are infinite; among them is safety.”

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