January 07. 2013 9:00AM

Innovate or Die: Learning from the Pilgrims and great political thinkers

Innovation

By Dan Steininger

  
Listen to words of wisdom from some of our founding fathers and political thinkers:

Benjamin Franklin:

"When you are finished changing, you are finished."

Henry David Thoreau:

"Things do not change, we change."

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"We change whether we like it or not."

We have all heard the story of the Pilgrims who landed in Massachusetts Bay on a cold November day in 1620. We bring it to mind every Thanksgiving.

If you have been in Massachusetts in late November, it can be pretty rough. There was no food, no shelter and no one to greet them.

The captain of the Mayflower couldn't get them off the ship fast enough so he could return to the safety of England.

The only thing they had going for them was a written compact they had agreed to on board the ship on how to govern themselves. It has famously been called the Mayflower Compact.

It basically was a commitment to communally govern themselves and not take orders from the King of England. It was only one paragraph long, but it spoke volumes. It was a sea change in how the Western world operated politically. The King, anointed by God, had called the shots.

Henceforth, they would govern themselves. Now that was innovation!

But it didn't end there. In the first season they created a communal garden to grow crops to feed themselves through the summer and winter months. The results were pretty paltry and they spent the second winter enduring near starvation.

Their chosen governor proposed taking another innovative step in order to save their lives.

The following summer a plot of land was allocated to every Pilgrim family and essentially they agreed they could keep everything they grew on that plot of land.

They then applied the same principle to their livestock. They got to keep what they raised and fed.

Guess what?

The wives joined their husbands in cultivating their gardens. The children even helped out. They ended up with a dramatically improved harvest.

Their livestock multiplied. They soon had more cows, pigs, goats, etc. than they knew what to do with.

They were onto something.

A few years later, the Puritans arrived in Boston. What did they need? They needed food and they needed livestock.

They reached out to the Pilgrims in Plymouth. The Pilgrims were able to sell food and livestock to the Puritans at an enormous profit.

That was the birth of capitalism in America as we know it.

The Plymouth colony decided to innovate by transferring ownership to individuals and allowing them to keep what they cultivated. They got to keep their livestock. It produced a greater result.

That's why the political thinkers of the day talked about change so much. The European style of farming was primarily feudalism. This was a radical experiment in private ownership.

It was innovation that changed the world.

It helped fuel the American capitalist system in a way no one had ever thought of before.

Farther down the coast, in a warmer climate, the colonies in Virginia along the eastern seaboard did not have sufficient gold or coins to sustain their economic livelihood. But what they did learn to do is grow tobacco. That product became their currency. Things were bought and sold with tobacco leaves, as odd as that may sound. It saved the coastal colonies from extinction.

People have asked me why I need the column Innovate or Die. The Pilgrims truly faced death if they had not been able to create an entire new form of government, as well as a new economic system right there on those rocky shores of Massachusetts in 1620.

Many argue that our best days are behind us. Americans went through a great industrial revolution and more recently a dramatic technological revolution.

Is the end in sight?

I think not. The very core of our American experience comes from learning to innovate on a new continent against overwhelming odds. Innovation is part of our American character.

If you haven't read the book "The Power of Habits" by Charles Duhigg then buy yourself a late Christmas gift and read it. Share it with your employees.

We all get stuck in our habits and we fail to innovate or think creatively.

After they've read it require everyone to start listing the habits that shackle your organization from being truly innovative.

This is harder to do than it sounds. Employees are reluctant to take on sacred cows.

Read this story of the Pilgrims to them before engaging in this endeavor. It will inspire them. It will bring out the best in their American character as they examine the habits that constrain your organization from becoming truly innovative.

With that said, I don't think you will ever think of Thanksgiving quite the same way aver again.

Dan Steininger is the president of BizStarts Milwaukee. He can be reached at Dan@BizStartsMilwaukee.com

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