When driving in a densely populated area, you learn to simply get off the freeway at peak traffic times and find your way home on side streets. Despite slower speeds, these local avenues promise relief. The side streets refresh the eye and the mind. They take you away from “rush hour.”
A “rush hour” of books and articles on innovation has emerged. Some are worth reading; others are not. Most treat innovation as an entrepreneurial verb or an economic noun. Few look at what innovators as people believe and do. So, instead of adding to that congestion, Lanny Vincent’s Prisoners of Hope: How Engineers (and Others) Get Lift for Innovating, offers a “side street” to innovators—particularly engineers in the role of innovating and their managers— a street that runs through the largely ignored intersection of faith and innovation.
By “faith” Vincent means a dictionary definition of a nonreligious “confidence, reliance, or belief, especially without evidence or proof.” Innovators believe in what they are doing before they have evidence or proof. That’s faith.
Faith is largely ignored in studies of innovation and innovators, partly because faith is mistakenly confined to the religious or spiritual realm. Some have it. Others don’t. Faith is also avoided in innovation literature because it is not receptive to analysis—empirical, economic, or scientific. However, faith is what makes innovators who they are and enables them to do what they do.
The inspiration for Vincent’s book came from patterns he observed in the expressions and actions of innovators with whom he has collaborated for over 30 years. Years ago, Vincent found himself working in a Midwestern R&D organization. Surrounded by engineers and scientists—many deeply skilled and experienced in their respective specialties and disciplines—Vincent began recognizing patterns in how they were thinking and acting, especially in their collaborative attempts to innovate. What he noticed both in the lab and in the field were acts of confidence and belief without sufficient evidence or proof. Sometimes just a hunch launched a flood of activity. The willingness to act without evidence or proof was striking. Vincent was seeing faith in action.
These patterns were strikingly similar to patterns of faith he had studied in seminary and preached from on Sunday mornings in his previous profession as a Presbyterian minister. Vincent was ordained as a “teaching elder” and served as a pastor to churches in North Carolina and Wisconsin for a little over five years in the late 1970s and early 1980s.At first, Vincent said nothing, thinking one should honor the unspoken boundary between personal matters of faith and organizational matters of business. But then he began to discuss his observations with a few of these innovators. He was told that what he was seeing was not only interesting but helpful—and new. Back then he was a social forecaster, small-group facilitator, and trainer of technologists in creative problem-solving techniques. Vincent had the chance to rub shoulders with innovators while they were in the process of innovating. He eventually developed a consulting practice as an innovation facilitator, coach and “midwife,” a practice of over 30 years, still rubbing shoulders with the real innovators in the midst of innovating.
For three decades, the associations Vincent noticed between narrative patterns conveyed in the Old and New Testaments and the patterns of faith scientists and engineers demonstrate when engaged in innovating kept getting stronger and stronger. Prisoners of Hope attempts to describe a few of these associations. For Vincent’s purpose, therefore, the Old and New Testaments are regarded as collections of faith patterns—more descriptions than prescriptions.
Patterns of faith, of course, are not confined to the ancient stories that codify them, but are alive in the minds, hearts, and hands of innovators, today. By extracting the architecture of the faith patterns from these old stories and then comparing these patterns with how innovators do what they do, both innovators and managers can see the power of faith at work in their innovating, every step of the way. Seeing is believing, and a step toward improving innovating capability and the management of it.
Just as faith is mistakenly confined to matters of religion, the Bible is often shackled to spiritual, even doctrinal matters. When the Bible is understood as a potent source of practical wisdom, relevant to all matters of human affairs, it can be seen as the remarkable resource that it is and has been for centuries. It is only in the past 100 years or so that the Bible has been misused as a battering ram to defend against what some consider doctrinal heresy, forcing from its varied literature a precision it never intended in the first place. That the Bible must be re-interpreted anew in every age is an underlying assumption in Prisoners of Hope. Vincent does not ascribe “inerrant authority” to the Bible, though he does recognize the “authority” that a large community over the centuries has attributed to its wisdom.
Understanding what makes innovators tick is this book’s interest. Successful innovators work through the uncertain twists and unforeseen turns of parenting innovations into reality. They work through their fears. Timing and circumstance play large roles in every successful innovation effort, for sure. Relationships too: innovator-to-innovator and with non-innovators. But faith is what enables innovators to work through the headwinds of resistance and fear. And this faith manifests in recognizable patterns when innovators innovate.
The familiar biblical story of David and Goliath is a perfect example of the intersection between faith and innovation. The innovator in this case is David; Goliath, a robust symbol of what and whom innovators face. David’s faith makes all the difference. It reminds us that innovators live with hope for the future. They are “prisoners of hope,” with all the fear, irony, grief, and even humor that come with the innovator’s way. Representative of an innovating narrative, the story of David and Goliath sets innovators in the context of innovating viewed through the lens of faith.
Vincent identifies the five faith patterns that innovators use as they work through the predictable challenges of innovating:
1. Awe and wonder for discovery.
2. Inspiration and appreciation for invention.
3. Forgiveness and persistence for reduction-to-practice.
4. Submission and humility for the introduction.
5. Acceptance and gratitude for the integration of the innovation in daily life. The longer Vincent has worked with innovators, he says, the more recognizable these patterns have become.
Innovators become self-imposed exiles for a time in journeys that are remarkably unique and remarkably similar. They go from being a part of a group to being apart from the group and back again. Each journey is unrepeatable, tied to the specific needs of the market and the technological means to address them. Yet each journey shares a similar fabric, woven together with fear and the pattern of faith that overcomes it.
Successful innovation always looks different in hindsight—inspired, brilliant, clever. But when innovators are in the midst of innovating, they exhibit what appears to be a much more chaotic reality, at least, until you recognize the patterns. And these patterns—the innovators’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors—all point to the central theme of this book: Successful innovators work through fear. Their wings of faith give them the crucial “lift” they need.
Without that faith, their only other choice is to give up.