Who’s Your Bertha Benz?

I happened to find a blog post on the website for CRS Automotive entitled, “Bertha Benz: The First Driver in the World”. Bertha was the wife of Karl Benz, who’s credited with building the first car with an internal combustion engine (among other things.) I was probably no more than moderately engaged by the post until I read this:

While Karl Benz was a genius engineer, what he wasn’t was a visionary or a very savvy businessman … no one wanted to buy [his car]! People needed it – Bertha was convinced of that – but they hadn’t realized it yet. And that is where Bertha played a crucial role. She realized that people were wary of everything new, feared it even, and just needed to be convinced that having and driving a horseless carriage would make their lives easier … Bertha realized that what people needed was a definite proof that the vehicle was reliable and could also master long-distance routes. Thus, she devised a plan … a first-ever road trip in the Benz Patent Motorwagen No. 3!

Since the trip took place in 1888, it’s unlikely anyone thought to call Bertha’s undertaking innovation. In all likelihood, if they called it anything — and since they were German, after all — they might have called it die Neueinführung (translated as the new launch). What they called it was marginally important at best.

What Bertha realized was everything.

Wary of Everything New

Benz Patent Motorwagen No. 3

Bertha was no psychologist. But what she realized about human nature in 1888 remains true today: We resist change. We’ll stick with the familiar even if it’s uncomfortable and undesirable. We’ll play safely in our comfort zones, resisting risk and ignoring the potential rewards. And we’ll miss more opportunities than we’ll ever recognize.

By way of example, consider this from Quote Investigator:

Attorney Horace Rackham … drew up the incorporation papers for Henry Ford’s automobile company in 1903. Rackham was asked to become an investor, but his health was poor, and he feared risking his precious savings. So he visited an unnamed leading banker to obtain advice … The banker took him to a window. “Look,” he said pointing to the street. “You see all those people on their bicycles riding along the boulevard? There is not as many as there was a year ago. The novelty is wearing off; they are losing interest. That’s just the way it will be with automobiles. People will get the fever; and later they will throw them away. My advice is not to buy the stock. You might make money for a year or two, but in the end you would lose everything you put in. The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad.”

That Knocking You Hear is the Future

Every organization needs a Bertha. In fact, every organization that aspires to innovative resilience needs to encourage and support as many Berthas as possible, systemically and systematically. People don’t need to be visionaries to have good ideas. But they do need environments in which their ideas are welcomed and evaluated objectively, in which they’re allowed to make mistakes and to learn from them, in which their failures are forgiven and their successes are recognized and rewarded.

Who are your Berthas? How will you find them? How will you support and encourage them?

Given the rate of change, you should start looking now.

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