Innovation Lessons from the Allegory of the Olive Tree – Jacob 5

As I listened to Jacob 5 this morning, it occurred to me that Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree teaches us how to innovate successfully. Here are some of the principles I noticed:

  1. Don’t expect your first idea to work. In the allegory, the master of the vineyard sees an olive tree beginning to decay and begins with the interventions he was used to: “he pruned it, and digged about it, and nourished it.” Over time, he began to see some promising new branches, but “the main top thereof began to perish” (Jacob 5:4-6). Just like Laman requesting the brass plates from Laban, the obvious approach didn’t work. It was a good way to start, but it was now time to try something else. (See 1 Nephi 3:11-14.)
  2. Give your strategies some time to succeed. Not unlimited time, but enough time. Multiple times in this allegory, the Lord of the vineyard implements a new strategy. After doing the work, he leaves the trees alone for “a long time,” to see what will happen (Jacob 5:15, 29). As Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught: “Too much anxious opening of the oven door and the cake falls instead of rising” (“Patience,” BYU Speeches, 27 November 1979).
  3. Just because an approach works today doesn’t mean it will work forever. I know this one is discouraging. At one point in the parable, several of the trees were doing really well. But when the master came back, they were no longer producing good fruit. Circumstances change, and a strategy that worked previously may need to be adjusted.
  4. Be observant. Some form of the word “behold” appears 56 times in this allegory. The Lord of the vineyard is constantly pointing out to his servant what he sees: the trees, the branches, the fruit. He also asks the servant to be aware of the time—”Behold the end draweth nigh.” Paying attention and critically evaluating the performance of the trees is necessary to determine if the strategies are working.
  5. Understand your goals. The Lord of the vineyard had a single, clearly defined and and easily measurable objective. He wanted trees that produced good fruit. If any of the trees were producing wild fruit, then there was still more work to be done.
  6. Be willing to try unlikely approaches to test your assumptions. This might be the very definition of innovation. In the allegory, the servant expresses surprise that a tree in “a poor spot of ground” is thriving. The master takes the opportunity to point out another tree in a spot of ground that is “poorer than the first” (Jacob 5:22-25). Both trees are doing well, while a tree in a good spot of ground is giving mixed results. The servant’s original assumption, that the quality of the output is positively correlated with the quality of the ground, has been disproved.
  7. Look for the silver lining when you fail. On one occasion in the allegory, a tree begins producing a variety of bad fruit. The master is discouraged. But the servant says, “Behold, because thou didst graft in the branches of the wild olive tree they have nourished the roots, that they are alive and they have not perished; wherefore thou beholdest that they are yet good” (Jacob 5:34). This gives the master a new idea for what to do next, and they are able to continue forward with the project.
  8. As you operationalize changes at a larger scale, you will need to be more careful how you introduce change. Near the end of the allegory, the Lord of the vineyard provides training for his servants: “Ye shall not clear away the bad thereof all at once,” he says, “lest the roots thereof should be too strong for the graft, and the graft thereof shall perish” (Jacob 5:65).

Today, I will apply these principles of innovation to the challenges I face. I will observe the effects of my actions and adjust my approach as needed until I achieve the desired results.


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