The unicorn is perhaps unique among myths in that the creature doesn’t appear in the mythology of any culture. The ancient Greeks, for all of their centaurs, hydras and medusas, never had any stories of unicorns, they simply believed that some existed somewhere.
Of course, nobody had ever seen one, but they believed others had. Travelers would go to far away places, bring back stories of them and speak of the magical properties contained in their horns. Alas, no matter how hard anyone searched for unicorns, none were ever found, but that didn’t stop people from looking.
All too often, modern executives operate on similar principles. They see “secrets of Steve Jobs”and “habits of Elon Musk” written about in blogs and the business press or hear them whispered about in hushed tones at conferences. The truth is, most of these are myths with little to no evidence behind them. Here are four you especially need to avoid.
1. The Lone Genius And The Eureka! Moment
Probably the most persistent myth about innovation is that it is the product of a lone genius who has a magical moment of epiphany and changes the world. This notion can be incredibly appealing because it implies that, if we are one of the chosen, a great idea will come to us in a flash and the job will be done. Like unicorns, the Eureka! Moment is mostly a myth.
Consider the often told story of Alexander Fleming, who came back from his summer holiday in 1928 to discover that his bacterial cultures were contaminated by a strange mold that was eradicating the colonies he had been growing. Yet instead of throwing away his work, he decided to study the mold instead and discovered penicillin.
That’s all true, but it leaves out some crucial details. First, what Fleming discovered couldn’t have cured anyone. The penicillin mold was merely able to kill bacteria in a petri dish. It couldn’t be stored or made in enough quantity to be therapeutically effective, which is why when he published his results nobody really noticed.
About a decade later, a team with a greater diversity of skills came upon Fleming’s paper and got to work. They figured out how to transform penicillin into a storable powder and developed a fermentation process to produce larger quantities. Then they worked with other labs, with skills and knowledge they didn’t have, to make more improvements
Finally, in 1945, or nearly 20 years after the “Eureka moment,” penicillin became commercially available. By that time, hundreds of people worked on it in one way or another.
2. Innovations Need To Be Cutting Edge And New
Another persistent myth is that great innovations are entirely new. In actuality, it usually takes about 30 years to go from an initial discovery to a commercial impact. So the “next big thing” that will create an enormous opportunity or disrupt your business is probably about 29 years old!
Innovation is never a single event, but is rather a process of discovery, engineering and transformation. For example, Thomas Edison opened the first commercial power station in 1882, but as Robert Gordon explains in his book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, the economic impact from electricity didn’t hit until the 1920’s?
Why did it take so long? Well first, electricity doesn’t do much for a plant built to be run on steam power. So new plants needed to be built. From there, it took awhile for people to realize that instead of having one large motor running the entire plant, it was more efficient to have a small motor on each machine. Finally, and this is where the biggest gains came from, factory owners realized that they could design workspaces to optimize workflow.
This all seems silly now, because nobody today sees a large steam turbine running through a plant as normal. But at each step, problems needed to be solved, new possibilities needed to be imagined and there was money to be made all along the way.
Today, you can take a look at the Gartner hype cycle chart and probably find a dozen technologies that will affect your business over the next ten years. When they do, most people will assume that they just sprung out of nowhere.
3. To Innovate, You Need To Be Agile And Adapt
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 actually 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 for more than a decade 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 has made 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
In researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I looked at innovators of all shapes and sizes, from major corporations to exciting new startups to world class scientists. While all were tremendously successful, they had little else in common. In fact, I found them to vary widely in their approaches, their practices and their organizational cultures.
Some moved fast and iterated their way toward a solution, while others moved deliberately and spent years on a single problem. Some had massive R&D budgets, while others spent little. Yet all of them made important impacts in the world, such as breakthrough products, cures for terrible diseases and exciting new technologies.
The truth is that there is no one true path to innovation. You need to define your own innovation playbook based your strategy, capabilities and culture. In the final analysis, innovation is about problem solving and there are as many ways to innovate as there are types of problems to be solved.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com