I’ve just read Scott Berkun’s ‘Myths of Innovation‘ and Tom Kelley‘s ‘Ten Faces of Innovation’ (both excellent books) – and a recent article by psychologist Art Markman also now helps to support their view – that our obsession with individual heroic endeavor and discovery can often hinder true progress. The cultural myth of lone genius, tortured artist and brilliant technician who solves the worlds problems is still alive and well.
I love a good myth me. I adore movies such as Jason And The Argonauts. I would love to think that mythical creatures such as the Yeti could be discovered. And my heroes are dramatic and rugged individuals explorers such as Lawrence and great business mavericks such as Branson and Dyson. Myths are powerful reference points and point us in a direction – but can also be very misleading. Berkun and Kelley’s books brilliantly expose some of the myths in business innovation thinking and practice. Berkun shows how much innovation is systematic step by step and Kelley shows the ten different ‘faces’ needed to drive innovation, from ‘hurdler’ (overcoming blocks) through to ‘anthropologist’ and ‘experimenter’. It needs a blend of skills – not just technology and product specs. And of course both point out the vital role for partnerships and collaboration. Psychologist Markman, writing in Harvard Business Review says the most problematic myth of innovation is the belief that the lone hero and genius will battle through and then suddenly find the great missing link. Hero! It happens sometimes and when it does it becomes part of our mythology. In reality, most innovations and breakthrough is a combination exercise not an individual one. As he says; ” the problem with these stories glorifying eureka moments is that — most of the time — they are not true”. Yet often, that is what most marketers and technologists are striving for: Eureka.
My take is that great innovation is best supported through partnerships, collaboration and new conversations rather than insular, lonely and rogue contemplations. 18th century merchants who introduced tea, coffee, spices and silks were not loners – they were connected and had key relationships. Steven Johnson has pointed out that the best new ideas come from exploration with the ‘adjacent other’ – an aspect of knowledge or skill that may not be in your current set, but that can be powerfully blended with yours. As Johnson says – ‘ideas can have sex’. Example; Apple’s development of music player and distribution was the ‘adjacent other’ – with the innovation being more about working in a smart way with the music industry and using and enhancing existing PortalPlayer technology rather than inventing in labs. The issue is often that those leading innovation projects are pushing their own agendas, favouritism and self-interest – and the result is often an addiction to a ‘we’ve launched’ culture rather than a consumer focused questioning of ‘what value or benefit does this really give?’. My favourite marketing discipline is still one of the simplest I was every taught. Complete the sentence; ‘I will buy and use this more than the alternative because it…’. I’ve seen marketers gazumped and rooms fall strangely silent, unable to answer this (surely the most basic of marketing tests?) – despite months of project plans and innovation. On a related point The Financial Times also recently noted that a modern startup and tech obsession – with the aim being to raise finance, sell the business and moving on – does not foster true business thinking, marketing innovation or consumer benefits. Everyone is aiming for the model set by FaceBook’s Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page – but too many are poor me-too extensions, lacking a genuine love of solving a consumer’s problem. Again – it is too much inward thinking.
Working with external partners helps challenge the conventional thinking far more than searching for heroes and killer apps or finding a sucker who may buy your source code. Smart businesses such as Virgin, GE and Xerox already acknowledge that innovation is best built with partners and working collaboratively to build genuine value to the consumer. How do you start? With a good conversation. As Theodore Zeldin says; ‘a good conversation does not just shuffle the deck of cards – it creates new ones’. New ideas. New knowledge. New opportunity. And if you want to truly challenge convention and pursue innovation – isn’t a dynamic, fresh and open conversation with someone with a different point of view, from the other side of the track, the adjacent other who can add to your thinking – really the best place to start?