The year was 1978.
The location was the small town of Xiaogang, China.
And the situation was desperate.
But what came next should serve as an inspiration to any leader trying to improve the innovativeness of their teams.
After years of governmental and agricultural mismanagement, people in China in the 1970s were starving to death of famine. The issue was that not enough food was being produced to feed the growing population, and the communist government tightly regulated all the work of their population.
This included the farmers tasked with producing food.
But more than controlling the manner in which agriculture was handled, the government biggest mistake was that its interference created a situation where there was no incentive to produce enough food for everyone.
Each individual and farmer was told that everything they had belonged to the communist government. The tools they used. The land they sweated on. And most importantly, the crops they grew. There was no personal property.
“Back then, even one straw belonged to the group,” says Yen Jingchang (pictured above), who was a farmer in Xiaogang in 1978. “No one owned anything.”
At one meeting with communist party officials, a farmer asked: “What about the teeth in my head? Do I own those?” Answer: No. Your teeth belong to the collective.
The communist ideals were logical. Everyone was to be treated equally, so the government would take all of the food produced and distribute it fairly between everyone.
However, as a result there was no incentive to work hard in the fields. Someone who sweated under the hot sun for hours on end to provide for his family would end up receiving exactly the same amount as a lazy farmer who would rather have an extended nap.
“Work hard, don’t work hard — everyone gets the same,” he says. “So people don’t want to work.”
In Xiaogang there was never enough food, and the 20 farming families often had to go to other villages to beg. Their children were going hungry. And after another poor harvest in 1978, they were desperate.
That winter they came up with an idea: Rather than farm as a collective, each family would get to farm its own plot of land. If a family grew a lot of food, that family could keep whatever excess they produced in secret after giving the government their expected ration.
This is an old idea, of course. But in communist China of 1978, it was so dangerous that the farmers had to gather in secret to discuss it. By disobeying the government and effectively allocating themselves personal property which they would manage, they could be imprisoned or even executed.
That’s why when the families met in secret one night to sign a contract to formalise the division of land in the village, the contract also stated that if any farmers were imprisoned or executed for their crimes, the village would take care of their families and children until they were 18.
From that evening on, everything changed.
The next morning, instead of dragging themselves out to the fields because of the sound of the government morning whistle, many were up and working before dawn.
And as a result, that year’s harvest was more than five times that of the previous year.
Word of this miraculous harvest from a little village soon spread up the ranks of the local communist party, with local government officials taking in many farmers for fierce questioning. Some of them were shouted at as if they were criminals.
But soon after, the county communist party secretary visited and called this a worthy experiment. Then the Communist Party leader of Anhui Province, Wan Li, visited Xiaogang and gave his blessing — a bold decision at a time when the top farm officials in Beijing were still promoting communal farming, true to the memory of Mao, who died in 1976.
News of the village soon spread through the region, and while many party officials were not ready to embrace this new spirit, communal farms began forcing their own switch to individual land ownership, and by 1984 the communal farms had all but disappeared across the country.
In the coming years, China’s new leader Deng Xiaoping worked to modernise the country and economy, and even held up the little village as an example to the rest of the country as to what was possible if its citizens took ownership of their own lives through hard work and dedication.
You could say that this little village of 20 families helped to kickstart the economic revolution in China and bring more than 500 million people out of poverty.
What does this have to do with innovation?
The reason why I’m telling you this inspiring story on a blog about innovation is as a metaphor for something every company can benefit from:
Giving their own staff the authority and autonomy to try new things, even if they go against the current ways of working.
The idea for this article came to me a few weeks ago in an innovation workshop with several teams.
One team was enabling each individual to put up and discuss whatever points they thought were relevant, even if they contradicted those of other team members. That group had quite a few heated arguments, but ended up producing a large number of well-thought out, concise yet highly creative ideas.
Another group (more than one in fact) wanted to ensure there was a consensus in the group, so discussed each point in detail and only putting it up on the board if everyone was in agreement. The end result was that nobody got their feelings hurt, but the final solutions were really quite dull and unoriginal.
This is sadly very representative of what happens within teams and companies: while we strive to ensure that everyone is treated equally, it limits the ability of individuals to actually try out new things. And in fact, it teaches individuals that it isn’t even worth bothering to suggest a good new idea if someone else might disagree with it.
Innovation by committee leads to innovations which only please the lowest common denominator.
Yes, many of the things which an individual may think of will not work. But some just require some experimentation and refinement to improve.
And every now and again, you will find an individual with a key insight that can radically transform their own performance, that of their team, and even of the whole company.
Best of all, often a single individual is all it takes to drive and try out a small scale micro-innovation. In one of my popular previous articles, I showed how budgets for micro-innovations can cost a fraction of a normal project budget, yet empower and energise individuals or small teams to run experiments in weeks which would have taken a committee months of years.
Entrepreneurial individuals and small teams can thrive if just given a bit of ownership of their own idea and the authority to try something out. They might work significantly harder at it than something which is forced on them from the outside as well.
So the next time someone has an idea which might rock the boat a little, let them make some waves.