Posted by: rolfsky | December 29, 2009

innovation’s dirty secret: work in disguise.

As a presenter in the area of innovation, I often get asked about the “secret” of innovation, commonly phrased as requests for “tips or strategy”. Sadly, there are no silver bullets.

Instead, I usually deflect this comment by helping the audience understand innovators and innovation:

  • an innovator is an advocate for the possible
  • innovation is seeing the possible, and doing something about it

Scott Berkun has posted a well-thought (if a bit Santa-destroying-emperor-has-no-clothes style) article regarding the “secret of innovation secrets”. Similar to my belief, Scott mentions that it’s not simply enough to see possibility where connections haven’t been recognized before, you also need to be successful in DOING something about the new connections.

A section from his post: (edited, with emphasis added)

… the most misleading thing in much research on “how to innovate”, … is the focus on creativity as the bottleneck. Inquisitiveness, sparks of insight, and creative talent is the focus of much writing on innovation, [but] it’s far from the whole story. … ideas are cheap. … finding successful people who … are willing to do the legwork to convince others of the merits of something that doesn’t exist yet… , that’s the challenge.

If there’s any secret to be derived from Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, … [it] is the diversity of talents they had to posses, or acquire, to overcome the wide range of challenges in converting their ideas into successful businesses.

In this sense, an innovator is part scientist, technologist, part project manager, and part salesperson. If we were setting up a role-playing character, the best innovator would of course have +10 to intelligence and +10 dexterity, but also +10 to charisma and +10 to stamina.

Successful innovators successfully challenge the norm, and innovative companies repeatedly define new business opportunities by making happen what other companies don’t believe is possible. The work is what you have to do in-between your idea and reality. The real secret of innovation is how to find/attract/mold/educate individuals capable of that work. Is it possible? That remains to be seen.

What we do know to be possible is that companies can be taught (with the right executive support) to understand and support innovation so that it is successful. How do you do that? Well… that’s a secret.


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