The power of Unreason
The doing of new things or the doing of things that are already done in a new way,’ is Joseph Schumpter’s (who invented the term ‘disruptive innovator’) helpful description of the work of innovation. In thinking about pioneering in the Church I have asked myself how we create a culture of innovation in Dioceses which encourages, equips and enables people to think outside the box, experiment with conventional wisdom and challenge the status quo. To bring change we need people who will innovate and who can live with being thought of as ‘unreasonable’ by many.
An article I read recently from the London Business School reminded me of how innovation can be a very messy process. Dick Fosbury was considered one of the most influential athletes in the history of track and field. In winning a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics, he revolutionized the high jump event, inventing a unique "back-first" technique, now known as the Fosbury Flop, adopted by almost all high jumpers today. His method was to sprint diagonally towards the bar, then curve and leap backwards over the bar, head first, which gave him a much lower centre of mass in flight (it was actually below his body) than traditional techniques which involved straddling the high jump bar chest first. Many people would say that in those few minutes in Mexico Fosbury’s jumps changed everything in this athletic discipline.
But of course it was more complex than those few minutes.
Firstly Fosbury had to show amazing tenacity and stubbornness. In 1964 at the time of the previous Olympics his best jump was 28cms below the world’s best! He was a very ordinary jumper and every one of his coaches told him that his new jumping method was a complete waste of time. Reason must have told him to give up so many times!
Secondly circumstances play a role. He was helped by his high school being one of the first institutions to use large foam mats, rather than a sandpit. This is important when you are taking off head first! Secondly the world champion was not able to compete at the 1968 Olympics because of a motor cycle accident.
Thirdly any change takes time before its benefits are clearly seen. Despite his amazing victory at the Olympics it was not till the 1980s that every jumper used the ‘Fosbury Flop’ discovering it gave them crucial extra inches in the height they could clear. Before that many jumpers stuck to the old methods. Even the winner of the 1972 high jump Olympic gold medal used the old straddle method. It takes time for people to discover how reasonable ‘unreason’ might be.
Fourthly Fosbury was the great innovator but he was not the greatest high jumper! Following the change he brought to the sport the world record was broken many times but never by Fosbury himself.
The process of innovation can appear very messy and often takes time to be recognised. But at a time of profound change for our Church a fundamental question is how we find a place in our structures for those who might seem unreasonable. How do we encourage those who take the initiative to bring change? Where are the Fosbury’s who are doing it differently, who are wanting to take off head first? How are we nurturing and developing their unreasonableness? We need unreason because as Einstein said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.