What Polyamory Can Teach Us About Innovation

In January I headed to the Bay Area from the East without a job in search of new opportunities, like Tom Joad from the Grapes of Wrath only by plane and minus the dysentery. As you might have heard, rents are on the high side here so I found a shared room on airbnb. It’s been about 15 years since I had a roommate but it’s the Bay Area thing to do. When I arrived in my new temporary home, the first thing I noticed was a hardback book sitting on the desk called The Ethical Slut. I was expecting The Lean Startup or The Four Steps to the Epiphany but okay.

I later learned that my roommate, a 20-something female, was on her honeymoon in Greece so I would have the room to myself for a few days. Yes, you heard that correctly, my roommate was a newlywed but she wouldn’t be living with her future husband. He lived around the corner in a studio apartment. Why? My roommate was polyamorous and for those uninformed, or not living in the Bay Area, polyamory is the practice of loving multiple people simultaneously (prefix “poly” meaning multiple and “amor” meaning love). The Ethical Slut, published in 1997, is the bible of the polyamory trend (there’s a TV series about polyamory, officially making it a “trend”). What The Feminine Mystique was to feminism and I’m Okay, You’re Okay was to the self-help movement, The Ethical Slut is to polyamory.

What The Feminine Mystique was to feminism and I'm Okay, You're Okay was to the self-help movement, The Ethical Slut is to polyamory.

While some might dismiss polyamory as just odd fringe behavior, it’s perfectly consistent with the rule-breaking mindset of the Bay Area to foster new, seemingly radical ideas. It’s this “innovation ethos” that has single-handedly prevented overall innovation in the United States from stagnating.

Open-mindedness to non-traditional social behaviors spills into the business world here as well, challenging the status-quo and testing new boundaries. Whether it’s a new approach to relationships or a new paradigm for software development, the predominant attitude in the Bay Area is to rethink accepted ways of doing things.

If you were to ask someone five years ago if they’d stay in a stranger’s home instead of a hotel, they probably wouldn’t take you too seriously, but the innovation ethos is trained to deconstruct new business models and question everything.

“Well, why wouldn’t you stay in a stranger’s home?”

“They might be a serial killer.”

“Okay, what if you could see photos of them and their connections on social media?”

“They might still be a serial killer pretending to be someone else.”

“Okay, what if their driver’s license was verified and their credit card was linked to their account.”

“They might still be a serial killer ready to get caught.”

“Okay, what if you could read reviews from other verified travelers that stayed in the stranger’s home and loved it.”

“Well, maybe, I’d think about.”

“What if it was cheaper and larger than a hotel room?”

Okay, you get the point. Where others might blindly dismiss a seemingly crazy idea on its surface, the innovation ethos is trained to ask questions and understand why. The answer is usually more complicated than it seems. Great ideas always seem great in retrospect, but few future great ideas look great in the present.

Great ideas always seem great in retrospect, but few future great ideas look great in the present. 

Take social media. Ten years ago when I was working for the Chicago Tribune, I pitched the idea of a local social networking site and was told,  “We did a survey of our users and they don’t want to put their pictures online.” I then suggested allowing people on our local entertainment website, metromix, to create profiles and write their own reviews. “Too hard to monitor. What if they used profanity or worse?”

Have you heard of metromix? I didn’t think so. Have you heard of the Chicago Tribune. Probably, but your kids might not.

Polyamory is innovation in its purest form - people saw their friends getting divorced and saw themselves straying, or wanting to stray, from their own relationships. They saw a problem with an accepted practice and created a solution. Polyamory isn’t for everyone, but neither is airbnb. The point is that both are an affront to deep-rooted beliefs and traditions - monogamy and the sacredness of home - but satisfy unmet needs for a great number of people.

The Bay Area is filled with “problem hunters” like these devising creative solutions, whether for personal reasons like polyamory or financial gain with the next breakout startup. What ties these problem hunters together is their search for a better way of doing things and a belief that the current way isn’t the only way.