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Applying the Leadership Genius of Martin Luther King to Technology Innovation

Updated on October 2, 2015

Major Points to Remember about Technology Innovation

  1. Innovation has some uncertain steps
  2. Innovation requires several factors to be just right
  3. Innovators should beware of false starts/solutions
  4. Progress can build momentum and arouse opposition at the same time
  5. The Centrist Innovator can out-pace the Extremist and the Contrarian
  6. The Innovator is most effective when employing both formal and informal strategies
  7. An Innovator must be a champion


In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. published a book entitled, “Why We Can’t Wait.” The book was written to provide an explanation for why the non-violent civil rights demonstrations of 1963 occurred when they did and why they were successful. While describing the events that lead to social achievements previously unattainable even though propelled by civil war, constitutional amendments, and judicial mandate, King reveals principles and ideology that can be employed by innovators seeking to gain acceptance of new technology in organizations. With all due respect, it should be noted that extracting these lessons from a document of such social importance may be a bit like reading though the Bible and declaring that it is a great resource for mid-eastern geography. No such trivialization is intended by this article, but rather the gleaning of great sense from a great mind. Reviewing the lessons of change as they apply to King’s experience both confirms and venerates them. This article is organized by categorizing several themes and idea threads from the subject book. The categorizations are those of this writer. It is useful to the student of innovation to equate King’s term “revolution” with the terms “innovation” and “change” and his term “society” with the term “organization.”

Innovation has some uncertain steps:

King understood that though his goal was clear, the process of reaching the goal would be iterative, cyclical, and filled with advances and retreats. The following passages give his description of these steps:

· “No revolution is executed like a ballet. Its steps and gestures are not neatly designed and precisely performed.”

· “There is no tactical theory so neat that a revolutionary struggle for a share of power can be won merely by pressing a row of buttons. Human beings with all their faults and strengths constitute the mechanism of a social movement. They must make mistakes and learn from them, make more mistakes and learn anew. They must taste defeat as well as success, and discover how to live with each. Time and action are the teachers.”

The innovator of technology will note the similarity of these statements to the idea of Perpetual Challenging, especially with regard to experimenting with methods, and accepting some risk for methods that may turn out to be unhelpful or outright mistakes.

Innovation requires several factors to be just right:

For King, change could only happen when the right background ingredients were present. The adoption of technology also requires the confluence of people, information, resources, etc. King especially elevates the value of good timing and proper methods:

  • “In the summer of 1963 a need and a time and a circumstance and the mood of a people came together.”

  • “It is an axiom of social change that no revolution can take place without a methodology suited to the circumstances of the period.”

  • “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

Critical ingredients can often arrive unexpectedly in the technology world through chance conversations, unplanned connectivity of synergistic concepts, and even failures. An interesting note in the path of King’s success is revealed in the story of his “I have a dream” speech in the fall of 1963. Although King had developed the “I have a dream” theme in earlier sermons and speeches, that theme was not included in the remarks he intended to make that day from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (He was one of many speakers that day and all the speakers were allotted short time slots.) As he appeared to be nearing the conclusion of his prepared remarks, a person in the crowd, singer Mahalia Jackson, shouted out “Tell them about your dream.” King added his now famous words and the effect of the speech on the success of the civil rights movement is a matter of historical record.

Innovators should beware of false starts/solutions:

There are always detractors in the vicinity of any good idea, and in the attempt to achieve the right fit between an idea and its environment, a good manager must be able to guide the innovation process past ideological barriers posed by those who detract in the open as well as those that are more subtle. A good manager must first recognize the barriers. As King warns:

  • “There is a critical distinction, however, between a modest start and tokenism.”

For King, tokenism was the practice of placing a few individuals in positions of apparent leadership or honor in the hope that the masses would be satisfied to know that at least someone had risen above discrimination. Those who enlisted the use of tokenism promoted it as a moderate start. In reality, King knew that tokenism was intended to stall an actual improvement. The manager of technology must be aware of people who promote poorly thought out innovations, often for the purpose of gaining some attention for themselves. If a proposed solution seems as if it may greatly outperform the “S” curve for a given technology, there is probably some over selling going on that will come back to haunt the organization.

Progress can build momentum and arouse opposition at the same time:

Anyone who has observed a young but advancing project in an organization will recall that at the first signs of success both “band-wagoners” and detractors become vocal at about the same time. It is interesting that these voices speak at about the same time, thus keeping a sort of dynamic tension around the politics of the project. In addition, during what may be called the Growth Phase of the project, external competitors may take steps to strengthen their position and narrow the gaps where the new project has distinctive differences over past innovations. King describes this duality in the following passages:

  • “A methodology and philosophy of revolution is neither born nor accepted overnight. From the moment it emerges, it is subjected to rigorous tests, opposition, scorn and prejudice. The old guard in any society resents new methods, for old guards wear the decorations and medals won by waging battle in the accepted manner. Often opposition comes not only from the conservatives, who cling to tradition, but also from the extremist militants, who favor neither the old or the new.”

  • “With initial success, every social revolution simultaneously does two things: It attracts to itself fresh forces and strength, and at the same time it crystallizes the opposition.”

The Centrist Innovator can out-pace the Extremist and the Contrarian:

The manager who tries to innovate in an environment that has both rigid supporters of the status quo and supporters of oversold alternatives can at least take hope in the fact that with commitment to a clear goal and a flexible framework, he/she can ultimately pass by the others.

  • “The conservatives who say, “Let us not move so fast,” and the extremists who say, “Let us go out and whip the world,” would tell you that they are as far apart as the poles. But there is a striking parallel: They accomplish nothing…”

Although these two types of detractors can use up valuable organizational resources in the pursuit of their positions, they create a situation in which, after a period of no advances in the organization’s products, a well planned innovation that makes real progress can get credit for doing something right at time when the organization is most desirous of innovation.

An Innovator is most effective when employing both formal and informal strategies:

“Why does misery constantly haunt us?” King believed this was the question prominent in the mind of the discriminated and he sought a peaceful change that would put an end to the question. Civil war, constitutional amendment, and judicial orders had not effected relief, but there were still many in King’s time who believed that the legal route was the only way out. But most of the necessary laws were already in place; they just weren’t being obeyed. Some of King’s detractors claimed that he was ignoring the legal route. In actuality, he believed that his form of protest would bring about the realization of the law.

  • “Direct action is not a substitute for work in the courts and the halls of government…Indeed, direct action and legal action complement one another: when skillfully employed, each becomes more effective.”

Similarly, the technical innovator must take a double approach. It is necessary but not sufficient to plan a proper budget, conduct thoughtful research, and assemble a strong team. But it is equally important to communicate with team members and potential team supporters about the vision, spend time pondering the intangible facets of the project, and allow free thought processes among team members,

An Innovator must be a champion:

The peak of activity for King in the summer of 1963 was the non-violent marches and protests in Birmingham, Alabama, a city that according to King was the most segregated city in America. There came a time in the Birmingham work when King had to decide whether or not he should allow himself to become one of the arrested protesters. He believed it was necessary for him to lead by example, walk the talk, as it were, if the tenets of the non-violent movement were to carry any weigh and captivate the commitment of the foot soldiers in the movement. In a high-tension meeting to discuss the decision, King was advised and pleaded with by his closest friends and supporters not to allow himself to be arrested. They said he was too greatly needed at the helm to coordinate the myriad factions of the behind the scenes supporters. They said that once arrested, there was no telling how long he would be jailed, and that great harm could come to him and therefore great harm would come to the movement. Of this moment in time he wrote:

  • “There comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man surrounded by loyal friends and allies realizes he has come face to face with himself.”

Generally the circumstances are not so intense when technical managers have to make decisions, but there are some similarly required elements. The leader of innovation must be prepared to work hard and maintain a discipline of self-education and inspiration. He/she must be strong in the sense that it is always clear to others how important the objective is to the organization. But the leader must also keep a pleasant relationship with those that he hopes to enlist as followers. Risks must be evaluated and sometimes choices made based on intuition. Above all, the leader must be passionate about the vision and the objective. This is what builds momentum and acceptance.

The decision King made is revealed in the title of the essay he wrote within a few days of making his decision: “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”


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