A lesson about innovation by a pirate who never existed
One of my favourites childhood heroes was Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia, a fictional pirate created by the Italian writer Emilio Salgari in 1883. The character became very popular at the end of the seventies thanks to two TV miniseries on the national TV. I cherish those evenings with my father in the early eighties, watching together Sandokan’s adventures in exotic islands.
In particular, there is a scene in the movie that I can’t forget. It’s part of the of the second series titled “The Tiger Is Still Alive: Sandokan to the Rescue”.
At the end of the first series, Sandokan was forced to flee from his island, Mompracem, after being defeated and having his wife killed. In the second series Jamilah, a young rebel fighting to free Mompracem travels to India to convince Sandokan to get out of his solitary exile and help the rebels in their fight for freedom. When she finally convinces him, they begin a perilous journey back to Mompracem.
When they are almost at their destination, they pass near a small village. One of the villagers runs desperate towards them and begs for their help. The sultan’s soldiers are robbing them of their harvest, beating and killing everyone who tries to resist.
Sandokan wants to help them while Jamilah is impatient to join the rebels to fight against the tyrant.
The dialogue between them is short but incredibly powerful. I still remember every word of it [the translation from Italian is mine].
[Jamilah]: Sandokan, at this time in every part of the world, soldiers are taking the harvest away from peasants. And even you can do nothing about it.
[Sandokan]: “I know, but I am here, now. And maybe I can do something; I believe that by avoiding the small and close things we end up never achieving those that are big and far.”
We all love big audacious goals and moonshot thinking.
On Youtube there are plenty of videos inviting you to think bigger, to have a high impact.
And it’s great to think big.
To aim high.
As long as it doesn’t make us blind to what’s close to us, and it doesn’t become an excuse to avoid taking action.
Quite a paradox. The shiny light of a big goal may stop us from seeing the small, sometimes tedious, things that compound to achieve that same big goal we are aiming for.
The risk is to achieve neither the big nor the small results.
This is particularly true when we talk about innovation.
Experts favour notable examples, the ones with a substantial transformative impact when they explain how individuals and organisations can become more innovative.
The reason is evident, those examples are the most visible, they are usually well known, and they work well in motivating everyone to aim high.
On the other side though, someone may feel excluded from the game of innovation.
What’s the point in playing at all if I can’t change the world?
As both Tarde and Schumpeter wrote decades ago, innovation is defined by the novelty criteria, not by the size of it.
Just take a look at the origin of the word innovation: “mid-15c., “restoration, renewal,” from Late Latin innovationem (nominative innovatio), noun of action from past participle stem of innovare “to change; to renew”. Meaning “a novel change, experimental variation, new thing introduced in an established arrangement” is from 1540s.”
No mention of the size of the change in the original meaning.
But also in a recent, and one of my favourites, definition of innovation by Scott Anthony, “Innovation is something different that has impact”, there are no references to the size of the impact.
What emerges from these definitions, is that a minor innovation is just as important (or maybe even more) as a radical innovation.
Innovation can manifest at the most modest of levels. It can be even unnoticeable when it appears, though the impact may be huge in the long terms.
So, what happened?
Why are we so focused on the big innovations that we overlook the small ones?
Gabriel Tarde gave us the answer over 100 years ago, in his “Les lois sociales”. He explained that we speak too much “of great men when in fact we should be speaking of great ideas, which often come from very small men, or even of small ideas, of the tiny innovations each of us contributes to the common enterprise”.
We love innovation heroes.
Those individuals and organisations that spectacularly change the world.
But what about your world?
Do you think you can do nothing and wait for some great innovators to make your world better?
What I learned from Sandokan is never to underestimate the power of a small act.
Innovation is a mindset.
There are infinite opportunities to innovate everywhere around you. They may be tiny, hard to see. But they can start a ripple effect that will innovate your world.
If you’re not ready to innovate the small things close to you, you may never create the big and far impact that you dream about.
Originally published on medium.