Julie and I were at the workshop yesterday getting ready to begin the official training for the Sseko 2010 class.

We were all sitting around, chit-chatting, waiting for the last girl, Betty (hold your horses, you will meet her soon) to arrive.

In the middle of our chatting, I looked over at Edna (another one of our new young ladies), who was casually playing around with the way we fasten the anchors beneath the sandal.

“What are you doing over there, Edna?”

She looked up timidly at me, and I realized that she looked a little nervous, perhaps afraid of a pending reprimand.

I took the sandal from her and exclaimed, “This is brilliant! This is employee innovation, here!”

I quickly realized that the phrase “Employee Innovation” was a bit lost on the crowd.

Now a little something about me, I sometimes get a little overly excited about those “teaching moments” in life. ( I pity my future children. ‘Not again!’)

“This right here, what you did, this is innovation. People invent things all the time. And that is great. But unless we continue to change, grow and refine those things and ideas they become antiquated and irrelevant. You took an idea and changed it. You might just have made it better.”

I went on to explain that they were not just here to make sandals. That they are co-creators of this product, this brand, this community.

So the idea was born. We then went on to discuss how to evaluate innovation. For this particular situation we broke the evaluation into five categories:

1.)   Quality: How will this affect the strength and overall quality of our product?

2.)   Comfort: How will this affect the comfort of our product?

3.)   Time: How will this affect the amount of time it takes to make our product?

4.)   Cost: How will this affect the cost of production?

5.)   Aesthetics: How will this affect the design and aesthetics of our product?

 We went around the room and each girl gave their opinion on each category. I’ll be honest, at first it was a little painful. There was so much timidity. But question by question, we watched as these young women slowly started to believe that we wanted to hear their opinion. That each of them had a voice. And that as a part of this team and community, they were expected to exercise that voice, to contribute, to become co-creators.

After evaluating, we decided that there was enough reason to continue to explore this option. The next step would be to create a proto-type. (Yes, prototype. Lesson numero two. Sometimes I tend to overindulge.)

So we made a sandal to see if all this conjecturing we had been doing was actually on the right track. Right there and then.  And then we took it for a little test run. Literally. (Well, brisk walk.)

The excitement in the workshop was building.

Nex was an experiment in democracy. (Yeah, yeah. Lesson number three, so sue me.) We took a vote. Julie and I included, we all voted. We explained that in this community, although we each have different responsibilities, every voice has weight. So we voted.

And we decided unanimously that the idea was worth pursuing. We all did a little celebrating. And we officially gave Topesta The Innovator of the Day award.

{Now, if you feel inspired or warmed by that story, feel free to stop reading now. But for full disclosure purposes I will continue with Act II: The Morning After}

When Julie and I left the workshop that day, we instructed the girls to continue making the sandals with the new method.

When we arrived the next morning we noticed a little something that had slipped by us the day before. And that something was not a good something. There was a little glitch that was caused by the new method, and because of that, we had to toss about 30% of the sandals that had been made that afternoon.

And then we noticed that there were another 50 pairs of sandals that were works in progress, that would have to all be undone to avoid said glitch. Julie and I had a little conference and came to the conclusion that this was the only option. Until some other things changed in our production, we had to go back to the old way.

We dreaded telling the girls. Yesterday had been such a beautiful picture of growth and creativity.

But this is the nature of innovation.

You take a risk. Sometimes it works. And sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t that excitement and energy seems like a nostalgic memory from the past. And you feel like you are back at square one.  At square one with a bunch of dud sandals and discouraged young women.

But the thing is, innovation isn’t about the end.

The product. The system. The method.

It is about the process.

The process of humbling yourself to realize that everything can be made better.

The process of finding your voice.

The process of becoming a co-creator.

The process of realizing that to create is to risk.

But to not, is a far greater one.

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