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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 2 November 2012

Purpose and Innovation: Communication ROI

My four year-old loves to ask why.  He wants to know why he should brush his teeth, why he can't play games instead of going to bed, why some people speak different languages than he does.  His curiosity isn't malicious - he simply seeks the purpose of things so that he can understand them.  When he has understanding (teeth left unbrushed rot and make you sick, without sleep people get cranky and can't function, different people from different places learn different things that they bring with them wherever they move), the world makes rational sense to him. 
In the world of business and policy, you must always be able to answer the "so what" question to justify a course of action, an expense or an idea.  Without a clear purpose in place, activity is just spinning wheels.  If you can't explain what a project is for, nobody will support it.  If, however, you have a clear purpose, the "why" question from others can inspire you to find alternative routes to get where you're going. 
We demand our media provide us with pay-offs; stories must have narrative arcs that lead somewhere, justifying our emotional and attentive investment.  Jokes need punchlines; elevator-pitches need goals; even blog posts have to go somewhere, lest the reader stop tuning in.  Every religion has an end-game and a rationale for its required behaviour, be it right action and thought, donation or opposition to a viewpoint.  When there isn't a clear purpose for something (an accidental death, a devastating storm, an action of our own) we feel compelled to confabulate a meaning to make sense of it.
People are hard-wired to ask why, to seek purpose.  There's evidence that this drive to find reason is what sparked the move towards collaborative organization (society) in the first place.   This instinct to question is essential for communication; it gives us cause to engage proactively with others and find answers to our queries.  Without purpose, there is no justification for foresight, planning or action.  The inclination to seek purpose ignites the need to question, which leads to communication and collaboration on responses.  When differing opinions rub up against each other, questioning bridges the gap and allows for innovative solutions to emerge.
Without questions, there would be no discovery or innovation.  If nobody had ever bothered to ask why people get sick, society would never have developed medicine.  If nobody had questioned established medicine, the great innovations we've seen in the health care industry would never have happened.  From Copernicus to Galileo to Einstein, it was the people who sought to understand purpose that have revolutionized our collective understanding of the world.  Every bit of progress we've had, really, stems from someone asking "what makes that happen?" or "why do we do things this way?" and "how could we do it differently to achieve the same goal more effectively?"
When we stop asking why and revert to reaction, communication dies and progress grinds to a halt.  Instead of seeking solutions, we react to problems with an even more ingrained fight-or-flight instinct.  We're seeing that happen now in Canadian politics.  Queen's Park has been in a deadlock since the election because all Parties were committed to individual positions rather than seeking collaborative solutions; they were justifying why, rather than asking why.  Federally, the Harper government is so opposed to alternative viewpoints that they are actively stifling information, trying to remove the fuel that fosters questioning. 
In Toronto, poor Rob Ford refuses to question any of his positions and has tripped over one rake after the other as a result.  In perhaps the most infamous example, his response to gun crime was "kick the bums out" rather than asking what led people to commit such crimes in the first place.  It's the same sort of thinking that has fueled the notion of segregation throughout history; when you don't value the act of questioning (because you think you have all the answers) you react by trying to remove threats rather than ask questions and find solutions to them.
We're in a reactive mood, these days, a temperament that's being fueled by belligerent politics.  Innovation isn't what it could be and solutions feel much harder to come by.  Collectively, we're kicking the big challenges down the field, hoping someone else will do the proactive heavy lifting for us.  Instead of begrudging our lot and pointing fingers of blame, we would be much better served by asking why we're in this rut and collaboratively, start asking questions about how we can move forward once again.  It's facetious to expect a solution return if we aren't willing to make a communication investment.


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