Bringing small fires together

I never expected to enjoy the Olympic opening ceremony nearly as much as I did. It was a fantastic showpiece for British creativity. As CNN’s Alex Wolff said, “If the guy in front of you zigs, it’s best to zag.” Leave the mass choreography for the dictatorships. We’ll do chaotic dancing, stories and jokes, not all of which will be got by those who have never lived here.

It managed to capture the often contradictory essence of Britain, as the BBC’s Mark Easton observed:

If our guests are left thinking GB is contemplative & daft, self-deprecating & clever, respectful & subversive- the ceremony did its job.

Inevitably it came in for criticism for what it included and left out. But there is a time and place for remembering Trafalgar, the Somme and the Battle of Britain, just as there is for washing the dirty linen of slavery and colonialism. An Olympic ceremony isn’t it.

The story, the dancing, the music and the comedy enthralled the world then, just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, came the greatest surprise of all. The cauldron would be lit not by one hugely famous celebrity but by seven athletes that most people had never heard of. And it would not be one big fire but a combination of lots of little ones.

Whether intentionally or not, Thomas Heatherwick and Danny Boyle gave us a wonderful metaphor for organising our creative energy.

Here’s what Ha-Joon Chang has to say on the subject:

What makes the poor countries poor is not the lack of raw individual entrepreneurial energy, which they in fact have in abundance. The point is that what really makes the rich countries rich is their ability to channel the individual entrepreneurial energy into collective entrepreneurship.

Very much influenced by capitalist folklore, with  characters such as Thomas Edison and Bill Gates, and by the pioneering work of Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian-born Harvard economics professor, our view of entrepreneurship is too much tinged by the individualistic perspective – entrepreneurship is what those heroic individuals with exceptional vision and determination do.

However, if it ever was true, this individualistic view of entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly obsolete. In the course of capitalist development, entrepreneurship has become an increasingly collective endeavour.

Over the last century, the heroic entrepreneur has increasingly become a rarity and the process of innovation in products, processes and marketing – the key elements of Schumpeter’s entrepreneurship – has become increasingly ‘collectivist’ in its nature. Yet, despite this, the world economy has grown much faster since the Second World War, compared to the period before it. In the case of Japan, the firms have even developed institutional mechanisms to exploit the creativity of even the lowliest production-line workers.

If effective entrepreneurship ever was a purely individual thing, it has stopped being so at least for the last century. The collective ability to build and manage effective organizations and institutions is now far more important than the drives or even the talents of a nation’s individual members in determining its prosperity.

In other words, the innovation of the future will be created not by super-heroes lighting huge cauldrons but by lots of people lighting little fires which then come together to create one big one. The secret will be to find those torch bearers and bring them together to light their fires.

If we are to innovate and find new ways to meet the considerable challenges which face us (and there are many), it will have to look something like what we saw on Friday evening.


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2 Responses to Bringing small fires together

  1. Pingback: Bringing small fires together - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Pingback: Content as firestarter

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