In a recent social media frenzy, I stumbled upon a great insight: the link between controversy and innovation. I had just finished my post about how innovation is a natural result of being human, and Lisa Kaye tweeted a quote from actress Eva Le Gallienne, stating that “Innovators are inevitably controversial.” When I think of controversy, I immediately think of courage.
That same day, innovation guru Diego Rodriguez posted a TED talk by Bryan Stevenson encouraging us all to be courageous. In his talk, Bryan touches on how we are all inspired by people who are the first to stand up, speak up, lead the way, draw a line, or refuse to budge on principle. Rosa Parks was an icon of courage for civic innovation and equal rights. John F. Kennedy was an icon of courage that spurred innovation in science and technology. Ronald Reagan was an icon of courage for global unity.
To make change, it is essential that we stand up for what we believe is right. Courage is one part vision of what could be and one part frustration with what is. Courage is the spark that ignites change and inspires others to join the process and tip from old to new.
Linking controversy and innovation makes it sound like innovation is a struggle against resistance. Which gets me thinking about resistance as a strengthener. People do push-ups, lift weights, carry medicine balls, or use elastic bands to build muscle. You push against gravity to improve yourself. So it makes sense that pushing against normal is a great way to improve the world.
Courage is only half of the equation
I’ve learned through many, many, many failed attempts, that courage is necessary, but not sufficient in successful innovation. Courage is only half of the equation. With only courage, you can come off as righteous, contrarian, or antagonistic. A thorn in the side. You face immediate rejection by the established way. Succeeding only at creating more resistance. It’s really something to speak up, but not enough to leave it at that. Controversy can end with polarization and gridlock (take the U.S. Congress… please!). Or controversy can be the beginning of a better world.
The other half of the innovation equation is creativity. By creativity, I’m not talking about the Crayola-artsy-black-turtle-neck type of creativity. I’m talking about the well-that-didn’t-work-so-let’s-try-this type of creativity. Lateral thinking that produces a never-ending stream of ideas and alternatives to test and explore until the right thing happens. The way Thomas Edison tried hundreds of filament-gas-tube combinations to get the light bulb. The way Abraham Lincoln tried running for office multiple times before finding his way to the Presidency. They were successful innovators because they had both courage and creativity.
Against means together?
For most big problems, there is no silver bullet. No single invention. Innovation is an unfolding, iterative, extended effort that takes place against the normal way of doing things. So innovation is inevitably controversial, requiring us to act with both courage and creativity to achieve success.
As you may already know, “contra” is a Latin root meaning against. And “verse” means turn. Literally, “turning against.” Being interested in linguistics and natural human behavior, I poked around the origins of contra and found that the prefix con- is a variant of com– which means together. This makes sense if you consider against in this usage: The ball is resting against the wall (they are sharing the same space together).
So perhaps controversial really means, “turning together.” And we humans are designed to work together and constantly improve our condition.
Bottom line: to be successfully controversial, consider your mission as a strengthening exercise you do with a bunch of other people, not a war against the other side you must win (or else!).