What (truly open) innovators can learn from religion

god-is-loveCould you be missing something really important in your vision for systemic innovation, just because you can’t tolerate bible thumpers and fundamentalists?

Now, before you stop reading because the R word was mentioned, understand that the man provoking the question, philosopher Alain de Botton is an atheist. In a persuasive RSAlecture (and book ReligionforAtheists) he suggests too many of us have thrown the baby out with the fundamentalist bathwater. And our culture is poorer for it. If you are an organizational or systems designer trying to engage diverse communities with a compelling central vision, you could learn something from religion, if not from the religious lessons themselves. You can certainly learn from the methodologies for community building and teaching.

De Botton advocates a ‘pick and miss’ approach for finding approaches in religion that might be helpful in informing your life work and personal development.

Here are some key messages from his lecture:

Religion offers guidance, morality and consolation

It isn’t so much that religion offers guidance, morality and consolation as it is that people want or need it. You could think of this idea as being expressed in 12 step addiction recovery programs where people need the sense of a ‘higher power’ or cause in order to stay motivated in changing themselves. It’s the power of group psychology that we see in chauvinism and tribalism. Systemic change can be scary and not everyone can shrug off that fear with science as suggested by Gregory Berns in TheIconoclast. People with very rational minds feel the need for communion less than others but, if you’re striving for inclusivity and big change, you may have more luck building bridges by at least considering the needs of others that may be mysterious to you..

Religion is effective for learning because of buttressing

You don’t think for one minute that people will remember what you’ve told them just once do you? Effective learning, especially learning meaningful enough to effect real-life change, needs to be buttressed. And that doesn’t mean just saying something over and over again. It also means expressing the idea in different ways. So in religions, learning sticks because variations on the same sermons are preached endlessly and those messages are echoed in songs and other ways.

Learn with the body

What’s with all the kneeling, bowing, prayer gestures, processions and sacramental rituals? Well, once again it’s about learning. As education experts will tell you, learning does not all happen in the head. Almost everything you learn is connected with a muscle memory, which suggests that the more any experience connects learning with muscle, the better the learning. It’s another kind of buttressing. It’s also about tribalism. Every sacrament is shared in the community and signals each member as a member of an exclusive club.

Religion organizes time for important things worthy of reflection

How much time do you give yourself to reflect on what’s going on in your life and the world? On what’s really important? With the stress and hectic nature of business life today, the answer most likely is very little. We are constantly responding to problems with template responses for efficient solutions. How innovative is that? Religions have their own calendars and clocks that remind subscribers to go to church, to pray, to celebrate and so on. If you dismiss all of that devoted time as silly tradition and superstition (and some of it may be), you’re missing an important point. It’s hard to stay focused on big changes, especially if they sometimes seem unattainable or if they seem so alien that others laugh at you for trying. Religion would suggest you schedule time to reflect on the big picture as an important reality check — the reality your group wants for your industry or community rather than the reality of those who think it is hopeless to change.

Oratory: how you say something is vitally important

Love them or hate them, you have to admit fire-breathing evangelists are entertaining. It’s not important whether they’re spewing gobbledy-gook or valuable lessons. The fact is dynamic preachers get much more than just heads bobbing mildly in agreement; they get ecstatic, holy rolling, noisy, chain reaction receptions from audiences. They make their passion and convictions infectious. Their congregations remember, and they share, and they act. But nevermind, just go back to your rational and reasonable — and safe — delivery of sound ideas for innovation. Passion and flare in how you present them are just for the simple-minded and superstitious.

De Botton continues identifying other aspects of religion that are important considerations for anyone hoping to build or change a culture. His take on religious art is particularly enlightening and stimulating in its implications for change management. And then there is the part about finding the courage to ‘walk on water.’

Building shared visions and overcoming the fear of change requires something more than merely rational appeals to the selfish needs of individuals. This Easter holiday, I bow to my believer friends who have found the collective power to do so much good in the world. I do get the lesson: "God is love", and "God is in each of us", and there is incredible power in the belief of God. If we can leave the religious debate at that then we have common ground for building a wonderful future together. I think God would like that.