Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Innovation a la Tolstoy

Written by: on November 3, 2020

When asked how to prepare children for the exponential progress of technology, iconoclastic economist Nassim Taleb answered, “Read the classics” (Antifragile, 320). He goes on to posit, “The future is in the past.” The best innovations, then, have an intimate understanding of the past, are doggedly present to the immediate moment, and have an imaginative openness to the future.

I continue to revisit the pregnant metaphor of improvisation as a guide for innovation, especially with the relationship to the past, present, and the future. A jazz musician must have a command of the past – scales, structure, and rhythms. A common story I hear repeats when musicians say they began in childhood by copying their favorite musician. First copy, then create. Stephen D’Souza and Diana Renner utilize this same metaphor in their collective work, Not Knowing. “[Improvisation] requires us to be fully present to deal with the unpredictability of the situation. It means being open to the possibility inherent in every moment and being prepared to let go of the plan” (Not Knowing, 243). Mastering the past and remaining open to the present is the only means for a valuable future.

Popular culture obsesses over the new, and often these innovations are untethered to a history. Apple’s product reveals feel more like worship services than their followers would care to admit. Obsession with innovation can be observed from the increasing use of “innovation” in literature over the past 25 years.

The mania around innovation must be tempered with at least two postures: a rootedness in the past and and openness to an old idea for a fresh time.

First, a rootedness in the past. Several cultures around the world offer proverbs about the connection between the past and the future. An Arabic proverbs reads, “He who does not have a past has no future.” Similarly, the Chinese attest, “If we don’t forget the things of the past, they will act as a guide for the future.” Traditioned innovations establish themselves in a meaningful past.

Second, openness to an old idea. The desire for something new and fresh should never trump the obvious solution from the past. While many leaders preoccupy themselves with a new idea, often real change is echoing to us from the past. Furthermore, real change often involves a painful and strenuous journey of the leader to bring about culture change far more than it is about finding a messiah in a new idea. Innovative leaders must be like the scribes who “brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).

The postures I describe to the past and present enliven an imagination for the future. Perhaps War and Peace could inspire more creative shalom in its conflict and resolution than anything hitting the columns today.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (New York: Random House, 2012).

Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, Not Knowing: The Art of Turning Uncertainty into Opportunity (New York: LID Publishing, 2016).

About the Author

Shawn Cramer

6 responses to “Innovation a la Tolstoy”

  1. Dylan Branson says:

    Shawn, I appreciate the postures you’ve proposed. Being rooted to the past – having it as a foundation to build on – is important. I’ve talked with several friends in the past year about how important it is to know what the past is (though many of them roll their eyes and see it as pointless and irrelevant). But idolizing the past to where we don’t move forward or aren’t open for change is just as damaging, hence my appreciation for the second posture. After all, how can we make sense of our present and our trajectory without being aware of how we got there in the first place?

  2. Jer Swigart says:

    Shawn. Great stuff here. Yet I wonder what all of this is doing to you as a person.

    How does understanding the past (yours, ours, etc.), being present to the moment (personally, culturally, etc.), and open to the future(s) intersect with your discipleship journey? And how does your discipleship journey inform your approach to innovative leadership?

  3. Greg Reich says:

    As I read your post the saying “Your past doesn’t dictate your future, it prepares you for your future.”
    It is easy to push away the past and look toward the new. It seems the more complex the idea the more people buy into it. Yet the simplicity of things often create the biggest impact. The gospel is a great example.
    Yet there are times when old things need to be set aside in order to make room for the new. The gospels inform us the new wine should never be stored in old wine skins. Old wine is for old wine: new wine is for fresh wine skins. In your ministry with students in what way do you see the new and the old being forced together when maybe they shouldn’t be?

  4. Darcy Hansen says:

    I feel like what you are proposing here has been happening within some evangelical contexts. Many evangelicals are hungry for more of God and are looking back through church history to discover contemplative practices that were discarded over time for a variety of reasons. There is more openness to old ideas and practices as people are discovering how life-giving contemplative practices can be in their relationship with God. In what ways are you seeing a willingness to examine the past and embrace old ideas in your ministry context? How has that inhibited or driven innovation?

  5. John McLarty says:

    “Real change often involves a painful and strenuous journey of the leader to bring about culture change far more than it is about finding a messiah in a new idea.” Great line. So often people scream for change without ever considering what change will be required of them. I wonder about how to capitalize on the tension of peoples’ comfort with the status quo and comfort in the past, even as they outwardly express the desire for innovation. Your post invites me to think about a conversation about finding the best of both.

  6. Chris Pollock says:

    “The desire for something new and fresh should never trump the obvious solution from the past.”

    (You said ‘Trump’!)

    A classic of sorts (as we all can be in some way).

    One day, people will look back on his method (in a different way than we will to ‘War and Peace’?) perhaps with a bit of a ‘head-tilt’ toward progress for the what will then-be the present consideration of an innovative-next?

    Tuning in to the past. Sweet insight from Taleb and, I appreciate the way you’ve unravelled it-to-understandable in your post! Not all of Taleb has been super graspable for me…

    Thanks Shawn 🙂

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