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To Innovate for Impact, realize ‘ Smart ’ is relative

As anyone involved in innovation to meaningfully improve business outcomes can confirm, there are many things that need to occur and various issues to address to be successful.

One of the challenges to innovating for impact is to keep supposedly very smart people from blocking progress. This is based on the premise that “ Smart “ is rarely universal – whereby being smart in one area in no way guarantees the person is also smart in other areas. Because of this, don’t listen to them – especially if the person is articulating opinions, aren’t aware of emerging trends or rising Customer expectations, has historic views or preconceived notions, etc. Fundamentally it’s about recognizing people are blinded by their own prejudices – it’s part of being human. With this, the smarter you are in an area, the more you believe you are right in other areas. Further, smart people (in the traditional sense) tend to be good at explaining the known but challenged at seeing what’s coming, changes in the making, dealing with major unknowns, etc.

The only way to battle the naysayers is to make sure that innovation initiatives are led by positive thinkers. Studies have shown that optimists succeed far more often. They rise to a challenge. When the odds are against them, they want more than ever to win.

History is rife with examples of naysayers, many of whom were brilliant people but couldn’t see the future. It’s easy to let past experience and commonly held beliefs blind you to new information and possibilities. No matter how smart you think you are, don’t ever believe you own the crystal ball – since success is typically a combination of science, art, timing, good fortune, and hard work. Because of this, it’s important to be open minded, curious, humble, determined, know how to iterate, collaborative, etc. to build on your talent and ambitions. If the business leaders below can miss seeing the future, anyone can –

  • Thomas Edison famously said, ” The phonograph has no commercial value at all. “
  • Robert Milliken, Nobel Prize winner in physics, said, ” There is no likelihood man can ever tap into the power of the atom. “
  • William Orton, president of Western Union, said, ” This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. “
  • Harry Warner, founder of Warner Bros. Pictures, exclaimed, ” Who the hell wants to hear actors talk ? “
  • Darryl Zanuck, who cofounded 20th Century Fox, said, ” Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night. “
  • Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, commented, ” I think there is a world market for about five computers. “
  • Ken Olsen, president of Digital Equipment Company, said ” There is no reason for an individual to have a computer in their home. “
  • Robert Metcalfe, coinventor of the Ethernet, said, ” I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse. “
  • Clifford Stoll, author and computer geek, said ” The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher, and no computer network will change the way government works. “
  • Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, said, ” There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. “
  • Steve Chen, cofounder of You Tube, was concerned about his company’s long-term viability when he said, ” There’s just not that many videos I want to watch. “

Understanding the Nature of Innovation

They say life is what happens while you’re making other plans

   Innovation is what happens when you throw out the plans     

  ….. and start looking for something new

 Innovation in general and disruptive innovation in particular, can’t be precisely planned because by its very nature innovation is discovering the unknown.  Further, on many occasions, people often don’t even know what they’re looking for ! As such, it’s important to realize, most great innovations are stumbled upon.  In this context, innovating for impact typically occurs during the exploration process.  With this, people seldom know when, how long, or what resources are required.  All you know is that you have hypotheses that need to be tested, tweaked, changed, retested, etc. – until it’s determined what actually works.

Assessing Innovation Progress

Often innovation teams are judged by the standards of a mature business and get barraged with questions like –

  • Why is the project late ?
  • How come the project is over budget ?
  • When are we going to see meaningful revenue / profit ?
  • Why are certain resource needed for the innovation initiative ?
  • Can’t you do innovation the way we operate in the business ?
  • What process are you following ?

These are good questions for an existing product line – but for a new, untested business, they make no sense.  Innovation means experimentation, and that requires a different set of criteria and questions.  Their progress should be measured by their ability to run effective experiments, which prove or disprove their hypotheses, learnings, etc.  If you fail to set up a parallel structure and unique evaluation process for innovation teams, then you are dooming them to failure and undermining the future of the enterprise !

This is a problem in many enterprises as evidenced by 52 % of Fortune 500 companies gone since 2000, 88 % gone since 1970, and 40 % expected to be gone in the next 10 years !  To get past the huge challenge of Innovating for Impact in the enterprise, it’s clear a different mindset is needed – and realize no one has cornered the market on smarts to innovate for impact.

May 26, 2020

CAIL edited innovation commentary from the book “ Make Elephants Fly “