Go to any innovation conference and you’re sure to be amazed. Someone will stand up on stage and show you how to unleash creativity in your organization, develop pathbreaking products and run circles around your competition. Step by step, you will be walked through the principles by which you will achieve success.
This won’t be idle talk either. You will be shown how people just like you used these principles to attain incredible success. It may come in the form of the “one thing” that made Steve Jobs a great innovator, the 5 habits of Elon Musk or in some other form, but the message will be clear: This path will be your salvation.
Yet without fail, they will neglect to ask crucial questions. How many organizations who pursued a Steve Jobs’ path failed? How many with Elon Musk’s toil in relative obscurity? All too often, correlation is confused with causality because so few take the effort to look for examples to the contrary. It gets in the way of a nice story. That’s how myths take hold.
1. Innovation Is About Ideas
The most pervasive myth about innovation is that it is about ideas. Sure, every great innovation — or accomplishment of any kind — has an idea behind it, but so do most failures. The real trick is to come up with a good idea, execute it effectively and then get other people to buy into it so that it spreads and makes an impact.
That’s a much higher hill to climb, because there are far more bad ideas than good ones and a vanishingly small percentage of good ideas ever become transformative. It’s always tough to tell if an idea is good until you put it into practice and once you do that you take on the risk of failure, which is often painful. Nobody ever seems to want to talk about the pain.
What I found in researching my book Mapping Innovation is that the truly innovative organizations — not just the one-hit wonders, but those who can reproduce success over many years — don’t look for ideas but for problems to solve. A good problem leads to a sense of purpose and that’s where good ideas really come from.
Another thing I noticed was that great innovators had to persevere. They were able to do so not because they had better ideas, but because they felt strongly that the problem they were working on needed to be solved. So they stuck with it until it was. Revolutions don’t begin with a slogan, they begin with a cause. So don’t look for a great idea, find a good problem.
2. Innovators Are Risk Takers
This one never really made sense to me. Would walking around bad neighborhoods late at night and sharing hypodermic needles with drug addicts make me more innovative? Of course not. That would be ridiculous! So why would taking risks, in and of itself, make anyone a better innovator?
Sure, innovation involves risk, but so does everything else. When you invest in a marketing campaign, hire a new employee, take out a loan to finance expansion or do many other things associated with running a business, you are taking a risk. That doesn’t mean the element of risk itself is what makes you effective.
There is also the problem of survivorship bias. It’s not hard to find stories of people who swung for the fences and went on to great success, but we rarely hear about those who went down in flames. Notice how those who advise us to throw caution to the wind risk nothing by doing so.
Suffice it to say, in my research of superior innovators, not one mentioned taking risks as an important element of their success. What I did hear — and quite often — was about the importance of managing risks. So if you want to innovate, first make sure that you’re not betting everything on one crazy idea. There are no product launches in bankruptcy courts.
3. You Have To Be Agile To Innovate
When the iPhone came out in 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer dismissed it, saying, “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” Other attempts to adapt to Apple’s innovations, such as the Zune music player, didn’t gain traction either. Microsoft, it seemed, was a dinosaur, soon to become extinct.
Yet just the opposite happened. Over the past 10 years, the company has grown revenues at the impressive annual rate of better than 10% and maintains margins of nearly 30%. Those are very strong numbers. How can a company miss such an enormous opportunity and still survive, much less thrive?
Take a look at Microsoft’s cloud business and you’ll understand why. The company recently reported that it’s growing at an annual rate of over 100%. This, however, is not a new initiative, but a direct consequence of Microsoft’s old servers and tools business that it began building over 15 years ago.
The truth is that it is more important to prepare than it is to adapt. Microsoft is not a nimble company. What it has done is to make substantial investments in the research division it set up in 1991. When you are building capacity in your business decades ahead of time, you really don’t need to be that fast.
4. There Is One “True Path” To Innovation
Gurus wouldn’t be gurus if they weren’t selling an idea. In the case of innovation “experts” it is always one “true path” that unlocks the key to innovation and creativity. Some say that “design thinking” is the way to go. Others believe that open innovation is what leads to breakthrough ideas. Still others think what’s really important is to innovate business models.
These are, it should be said, all ideas with merit and strong track records of success. The problem is that if you show me any organization that follows a particular strategy, I can show you at least two that do things in an entirely different way and are just as successful. There is no one true path to innovation.
The truth is that every innovation strategy fails eventually, because innovation is about solving problems and different types of problems require different types of approaches. The way organizations get stuck is when they lock themselves into a set of solutions and say, “This is how we innovate. This is our DNA.”
Eventually, a problem will come along that doesn’t fit the approach they’ve bought into and, somewhat unsurprising, they spin their wheels. That’s how good companies get disrupted. They become square-peg businesses in a round-hole world lose relevance. They end up getting better and better at things people want less and less.
Make no mistake, the only “right way” to innovate is to solve a problem that people care about. You have to decide for yourself how you will get there.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com