The Disruptive Possibilities of Ordinary Talk

Thursday, September 4, 2014 - 19:15

Call me cautious, but when it comes to choosing between today’s popular bent toward disruptive innovation and more traditional approaches to change, I favor the latter nine times out of ten. It’s true, sometimes we must charge ahead in the face of complete historical and cultural intransigence. An example that comes to mind is the timidity and reluctance about long-overdue civil rights shifts for which The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King excoriated his fellow clergymen in his profound and moving “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” At critical points, all robust societies need just the sort of revolution the civil rights movement represented.

Otherwise, I believe, we’d best err on the side of respect and compromise when we go about disruptively innovating, especially when what we want to do is in somebody else’s neighborhood. It’s important to recall, after all, that disruptive innovation is a term that Harvard’s Clayton Christensen coined after looking at commercial businesses, not communities. Transferring commercially apt ideas and terminology into civil society contexts carries with it a lot of red flags and baggage. The more judiciously we do it, the better, as Derek W.M. Barker of Kettering Foundation advises.

An early summer New York Times article illustrates my point. The writer described the arrival in the midst of a dilapidated Detroit neighborhood of a go-go urban farming group. Replacing residential land with agriculture, anyone would argue, has certain disruptive features to it. In this case, some of the long-time neighborhood residents understandably didn’t cotton to a bunch of idealistic youths plopping down rows of carrots and cabbages where the old-timers vividly recalled houses standing and kids playing. So was the farming group guilty of all-out disruptive innovation or merely fostering traditional change? A little of both, it seems.

On one hand, the farming group didn’t go in feeling they needed anyone’s permission to cultivate crops on private property they controlled. The land was there, the food would do others good, and they wanted to build a market. On the other, none of the residents, struggling with their own financial challenges, had the resources or inclination to eradicate what clearly was, and otherwise would have remained, a local blight. The City of Detroit was in no position to step up, so green social entrepreneurs took advantage of the niche opportunity and programmed the land to meet their mission.

Where a breakdown may have occurred between residents and the activists in their midst was at the simplest point of human connection: face-to-face conversation. People from neither group appear, at least for any sustained length of time, to have “chatted over the back fence” (as Kettering Foundation’s president, David Matthews, likes to put it) with one another. The discovery of one another in sustained and authentic conversation might have eased some of the inevitable tension that is always a cousin to change. From there, the neighbors and the activists might have had a better shot at finding common ground.

Any community organizer worth their salt knows that it’s the enormous investment of time spent in dialogue (along with a genuine curiosity about others and the desire to fan the human spirit’s natural fires) that distinguishes the tough work of real change from the sugar-coated, short-rooted “help” – those few cents on every dollar to charity every so often that good-washes our consciences – so often popping up in America’s nonprofit garden.

Doubtless we will find ourselves from time to time locked in fights to right fundamental injustices. They will demand that we employ Dr. King’s sharp instrument of direct action just to stir greater willingness in reluctant lugs and ignoramuses, and even in those we’d normally consider allies, to face brutal facts and negotiate. In the meantime, maybe we can learn something – or relearn a skill we’re rapidly relegating to a curbside vestige – by restraining our disruptive impulses, searching for the low spot in that back fence, and trusting that our neighbors will join us there. Maybe in telling one another our stories, we’ll teach ourselves more than we’d ever thought possible.