Why Nuns Can’t Innovate…And Maybe You Can’t Either

I went to Catholic schools. I am grateful for the extra cash my folks spent on my education, but it is only now, as a parent myself, that I am (somewhat) regretful about the pain and suffering I inflicted upon women of the cloth—and vise versa. Idea Monkeys are difficult to manage, and my bet is there are still candles burning for me in several churches throughout the Midwest. Thankfully, God is not finished with me yet.


Looking back at my time at Bible boot camp, the biggest challenge I had with nuns was how quickly they shot down ideas.

Why can’t I work on stuff I am good at instead of focusing on stuff I am bad at?
Why can’t I doodle in class? Can we mix things up? Why does everything have to go in the same order every day?

All this leads me to my point: I believe that the most passionate and committed advocates to causes are too often the ones who keep the biggest ideas from happening. You’ve probably figured out that nuns are a metaphor for doctors, lawyers, professors, senior executives and anyone else with good intentions and the authority to kill an idea.

That’s right (your name goes here), I am talking to you.

I’ll use my conversation with a local law enforcement officer at a recent family gathering to make the point. I asked him an innocent and simple question: What do you think about legalizing prostitution?” (Remember, I like to challenge rules.)

Please note that it was not mission-driven curiosity that prompted the question; I have no interest in legalizing prostitution. Rather, it was intended to lead into an informal brainstorming session about better use of public resources. Is law enforcement being spread too thin? Are there more serious crimes that should get greater attention? How can we do more with less? Some countries and a few U.S. states (in addition to Nevada, where prostitution is legal in some areas) have moved toward decriminalizing prostitution because of just these concerns.

As it turned out, the officer was a strong fundamentalist Christian, and his perspective was a righteous one. At one point in his sermon (his response felt like a sermon; it certainly was not a brainstorm), he said the Bible was explicitly clear and that the Ten Commandments were as black and white as it gets when it comes to what does and doesn’t violate God’s will. I felt like I was back in fifth grade asking Sister Helen about long division; there was only one way to think about it: her way.

Of course, my intent here is not to question religious beliefs. Instead, it is to draw attention to the unshakable perspective of the very good man who serves the public well. For the record, he is a smart, articulate, wonderful guy, a role model, a friend, a great dad, and absolutely not the type of thinker the world needs if we want new ideas.

And if you are a passionate expert involved in something desperately in need of change, you should be concerned because you may be just like him. And when it comes to innovation, this is not a good thing.

Ah, you say, I knew it. Those right-wing zealots are the problem. They are closed-minded.


Do some digging into Conscious Capitalism and Green Innovation and you’ll find plenty of companies doing well (making money) by doing good (helping the planet and the people on it). You’ll also discover leading companies finally getting rewarded (making more money) by doing things that are good for the world.

But there is trouble in paradise. It seems that often the most vocal advocates for green innovation, health care innovation, legal services innovation, academic innovation…are the very zealots most willing to be critical of any movement that might actually make positive change happen. They know what the planet, patients, uninsured clients and students really need and they won’t let go for a better grip. If people won’t innovate their way, then they are shortsighted sellouts who are jeopardizing our future for some nefarious purpose.

Seems the left is as guilty as the right.

If you play with any idea that rubs the sensibility of “experts”—be they on the right or left side of the political spectrum—the wrong way, you’re given a label they consider negative: reactionary; liberal…whatever. The opportunity for a brainstorm is trumped by a lecture about the moral, legal, business or other violations you have unwittingly committed with your ideas. Shame on you.

Albert Einstein said, “One should not expect to solve a problem with the same level of intelligence that caused it.” If you find yourself getting really angry at the ideas being proposed to make your favorite cause better, we humbly submit that Einstein was talking about you.

Effective innovation requires a system that allows ideas to be freely conceived, discussed, improved, tested, improved, validated and launched. Big mouth know-it-alls keep that from happening.

Let’s get back to challenging the ones who hate to be challenged. Can someone tell me why priests can’t be married? I’m tired of the argument that priests must be wholly focused on God. Anyone with a history book knows that many Catholic popes were actually the sons of other popes or clergy and that Peter (“…and upon this rock I will build my church”) had a wife. Some claim it was priests getting donations directly from the congregation and when church land started to be claimed by priests’ families that the Vatican put an end to married priests. My bet is there are more creative solutions to these issues. So, any Idea Monkey priests want to take that one on? Hope so. I think my dad would make a wonderful priest and, thankfully, my mom would agree.

First Published on Forbes on October 16 2012.

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