Cash, Culture, or Talent

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I was on a panel today discussing innovation in Chicago.  Toward the end someone in the audience asked what I thought was the biggest impediment to technology growth in the region – a lack of cash, culture or talent.  Without hesitating I responded with culture.

The midwest is rich in entrepreneurial talent and while cash may not be as abundant as it is in some other places, if you have a truly great idea you can usually find cash.   What holds us back, in my opinion, is culture.

In order to innovate you need a culture that honors risk taking.  One of my co-panelists summed it up perfectly.  When the day comes where a 35 year old husband and father comes home from work one day and says to his wife, “honey I just quit my job today to launch a start-up” and she says “that’s great news” – that’s when you’ll have a culture that honors risk taking.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that culture yet in Chicago.  We don’t encourage people to drop everything and pursue their dreams.   We don’t encourage them to sit in front of a white board and sketch out untested solutions.  We don’t throw money at new ideas.

We don’t start off believing, we start off disbelieving.

And this philosophy of “can’t” is pervasive not only in the technological landscape of the midwest, it’s also pervasive in most of the country and in most every industry.  Yes, there are geographical anomalies (Silicon Valley, New York, Boston…).  But for the most part, we’re all stuck in the same rut.

Several years ago I was involved in a not-for-profit that was funding brain tumor research.   Dozens of grants were given out every year and I was interested in funding another grant.  But instead of just funding the next project in line, I wanted to fund a wild card.  I wanted to take something that would never in a million years get funded, and fund that.  My logic was simple.  Since the current approach wasn’t working, what harm could be caused by taking a new approach.

While you would think the organization would have jumped at the chance to try something new, they didn’t.   They reacted to this new approach, to this unconventional idea, to this risky endeavor, the way most of us do.  They flat out rejected it.

So how can it be that in a world that celebrates invention (the telephone, the lightbulb, the computer, the automobile), we are so conditioned to reject those who take risks and innovate.

The answer is simple: culture.  And to change it, we need start with the man in the mirror.

It’s time to honor all of those who throw caution to the wind and take risks.  It’s time to write articles about those who give up everything they have to  build something new, something that has never been built before.  It’s time to ask those that fail, and fail miserably in pursuit of their dreams, to be on Oprah instead of Tom Cruise.

Rumor has it that it took Edison 10,000 attempts before he invented the lightbulb.  That’s 10,000 failures and yet it’s still pretty light around here.

3 thoughts on “Cash, Culture, or Talent

  1. JB

    My nickname for this is the “lemming” culture. People are afraid to do something new unless they sense everyone else is going to do it. I see it on all levels.

  2. One phrase comes to mind: there are no failed entrepreneurs, only failed ventures. I would suspect that only a minority of people in our region agree with that view.

    How do we convince a majority of people to share that view?

    The job here is to build a social norm that celebrates risk and embraces failure as a frequent precondition to significant success.

    I just read Switch (How to Make Change when Change is Hard) by the Heath Brothers that documented how several small groups changed social norms and behavior. There is likely some insight there on how we can change the social norm of fearing risk in Chicago and the Midwest.

    http://heathbrothers.com/switch/

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