Is Not
What You Think
It Is

And What that Means for Big Companies

Jack Bellis, 29-NOV-02012 (I’m getting ready for Y10K)

Innovation is not

…about the room you work in, and whether it is painted bright colors and has puffy furniture.
It is not about classes on creative thinking.
It is not about everyone becoming Thomas Edison…
…or Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, e.e. Cummings,

, or Leonardo Da Vinci. You can pretty much forget about that.
And it is not about making money (!). Most innovation is a losing proposition for a long time.

It is not about newsletters.
Social networking.
Brainstorming sessions.
Sticky things on the wall.
Focus groups.

It is

…about learning to say
“Maybe” instead of “impossible,” … (the iPhone).
“I’m tired of this horseshit” instead of “I want a faster horse,”… (the automobile).
“You’ll be warm” instead of “I’m afraid”… (fire).
“Some will abuse it and some will lift the world,” instead of “we don’t want them to have that,” … (movable type and the book).
“That could be interesting,” instead of “no one would want to do that,” … (Twitter).
“We’ll find a way,” instead of “but no one has electricity yet,” … (the lightbulb).
“We must be first,” instead of “no one should do this,” … (the nuclear reaction).
“There’s got to be a better way,” instead of “I don’t see a problem,” … (Post-It Notes).
“I don’t care what they use it for,” instead of “what would they want this for,” … (radio, the telephone, the personal computer, the cell phone, RFID, WIFI…)

…about small companies… and “small company,” those few people who can envision, or perhaps merely allow, that today’s stupid thing is tomorrow’s matter of fact.

… about knowing the difference between genuine failure and merely “finding 10,000 ways that won’t work” (attributed to Edison).

… about risking pretty much everything, with or without a business plan.

… about bucking the trend, enduring ridicule, fighting the status quo, being frequently wrong, always different, sometimes faster and sometimes slower, less afraid, more afraid, less protectionist, less satisfied, lazier, greedier, hungrier, colder, hotter… than the herd.

Innovation — making it happen around you — is about attitudes, perhaps even more so than than actions. We tend to think of things such as innovation — and other things to which we presume to aspire — in glowing terms such as “right” and “good” and “brave,” but it’s the negatives that are the test of innovation; it’s the negatives that define it. Consider ‘leadership’ for example. We think of leadership as brilliance and power and vision. But leadership is 99% about doing the unpopular: walking headlong into the fire, or commanding it of others; making the choices that invariably leave 50% of the people unhappy, and so on. Think about it.

And it is no different with technical leadership. It is the climb uphill against risk, fear, greed, protectionism, oddity, dissatisfaction, want… and how decision-makers respond, whether the decision rests in a manager’s or “beancounter’s” hands or the entreprenueur who says, “if you won’t do it, maybe I’ll go off on my own and do it.” The path to innovation is defined not by the journey, but what blocks it. And at least regarding the committment aspect, it’s easier for single decision makers to surmount obstacles and objections than a string of decision-makers. Single decision-makers can simply ignore all objections. But in a string of decision-makers, any one of them is enough to stop production.

Some big companies have major innovations to their credit, but most innovations are not from big companies. And that’s understandable. Innovation typically involves 100% risk and commitment beyond reason… certainly beyond financial prudence; but big companies are optimized to minimize risk and protect assets. There’s no reason on Earth to expect innovation from them. So developing innovations is not the real innovation challenge of the big company. The real challenge is best summarized by John Maynard Keynes: “The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones…” For big companies, the proper focus regarding innovation consists of two things: 1) allow your old ideas to die, and 2) rapidly adopt innovations that prove themselves in the marketplace, to operate at the highest possible level.