We all like innovators.
The people that are ahead of their time, see the world differently and make huge impacts on how we navigate or perceive the world.
Innovation comes in many different sizes. From visionaries like Martin Luther King, Nikola Tesla, or Steve Jobs that change everything in our world, to being innovative in how your business approaches customer service complaints or increasing your website's security. Anything in this world can benefit from someone in their field who has gone against the grain and blazed a trail for us to a better world.
But before you go off trying to innovate everything in your life, realize that the biggest roadblock to progress is not a lack of good ideas: It's achieving the boatload of work requires to get the critical mass of work, public support, and trust needed to get a new innovative idea off the ground.
Take a look at Steve Jobs. Definitely the poster child of "thinking different" and doing things differently. But Steve was also known as a tyrant and a bully, that would stop at nothing to see through what he envisioned.
He had an insane work ethic, a gigantic company's worth of resources behind him, and while Apple innovated so many aspects of our digital lives for the better, there were some monumental flops as well that just didn't catch on. Not every innovator has the luxury of being the CEO of Apple, with a company culture that allows innovation to trump all sense of humanity.
Other types of innovators are famous artists or musicians that poured their entire lives into creative endeavours. Many of them died young, tragically, or only received notoriety long after they passed from this world.
Innovation is a hard road, and it is not to be taken lightly. While we all value the fruits of innovation, it's very hard to justify the time and effort put to something that has not yet caught on or been proven…. or that might not actually be worth the effort.
Know when to be practical
Sure we could come up with a new way to reinvent how people hang up their coats. But when a wall hook is pretty convenient and only costs $5, it might be a hard sell to make some high tech coat hanger that can be controlled by your iPad.
Ideas are cheap. Execution is everything
When we have a great idea that is not catching on, it's very easy to get a sense of entitlement or to pass the blame onto others for why our brilliance hasn't caught on. We can come up with a good idea and suggest it to deaf ears, then 6 months later, someone who is very persuasive suggests the same thing and everyone jumps on board.
It's not fair!
Our current understanding of how human behaviour works is that we are social creatures. When making decisions, we have a fairly non-rational way of making decisions. People follow leaders and crowds. We crave familiarity, and we fear the unknown.
And as an innovator, you are by definition going COMPLETELY against all of those forces. A simple way of visualizing how innovative ideas take hold is this chart that categorizes the entire population into 5:
Important to know that each group does not adopt a new trend, technology or idea until they see the group to their left completely on board.
So a person with an innovator's mindset can't always go directly to the whole population. You need to get the early adopters on board. Once the early adopters think your idea is cool, useful, or fun, then the first wave of the majority gets on board. After a time, the rest of the masses gets on board, and then there are always those stubborn ones in the back that don't change until they absolutely have to.
As an innovator, we often make the mistake of trying to get the whole population to adopt our idea right away. While we might not like how our social brains work, ignore this fact at your own risk. This is why innovative ideas begin and die with the innovator because there is a ton of work needed to convince early adopters to get on board. The question is then: Are your ideas not catching on because people won't accept the idea? Or because you are not getting the right people on board?
Are you prepared to innovate?
I wrote this article not because I want less innovation, or to scare people away.
I'm writing this because there are 2 camps of people I've observed over the years that get themselves into a very unhappy place because they are not aware of the downsides of innovation. The perfectionist and the starving artist.
Innovation as a mindset can yield incredible value long term. But the reality of life is that not everything needs to be innovated. Often times a perfectionist wastes a lot of time innovating something completely new, instead of just perfecting what is already in front of them.
While quality and innovation are good things, a perfectionist can fall into the trap of constantly innovating, but never producing. Picasso was an innovator. But he also produced 150 000 pieces of artwork.
So before you decide to blaze a new trail, ask yourself if you need to innovate or do something different is because the current way is actually broken, or if you're trying to innovate out of a selfish desire to feed your perfectionism, and get out of the responsibility of producing value.
The Starving artist
A literal starving artist refers to someone so dedicated to their 'art', that they have nothing left to support themselves. Their life is drained into the art, and ironically, the lack of resources becomes a constant distraction for fulfilling their artistic purpose.
Starving artists do not just exist in the art world.
They exist anywhere a project's purpose is lacking the resources to function properly, or the drive to innovate is impacting the business or group negatively.
Having a higher purpose is a good thing, but an innovator needs to understand that not everyone will share that purpose just because you told them, and that there are realities that you have to deal with. Apple ca innovate because the entire company is aligned behind the concept of thinking differently.
In a business setting, the starving artist is the one that puts their own purpose, above the groups. Instead of seeing how to deliver the most value to the group, or to put in the work to win over people one at a time to a new idea, the starving artist will always put their need to innovate over that of the team.
Even if you are the head of your company and call all the shots before you start trying to innovate, recognize that every innovation is going to take time to be able to monetize. You have to get buy-in from the team, and you have to ensure that you have the resources to not just see projects through, but once you have the new innovative idea created, that you have the resources to convert the world.
How can an innovator get their ideas out?
While the journey of the harder road is unique to each individual, there are a few guiding principles that apply:
- Have self-awareness of your strengths as a change-maker, and weaknesses.
- Put as much effort into building a team, as you do the innovation. No one has done anything great alone.
- Have a written down plan on how you will execute, with clear goals to avoid perfectionism.
- Check your ego from time to time. Are you using a higher purpose or innovation as an excuse not to do shorter-term tasks? Ask yourself: Can I give value to the world without all the risk?
- Ensure the payoff is worth it. Ask yourself if this innovation is so important you would be willing to devote the next 10 years to it, without any payoff? Impatience, or trying to force a goal is the quickest way to failure.
Everything in life comes with a cost and a reward.
With innovation, it can be difficult sometimes to predict the cost and be blinded by the potential reward.
So blaze new trails… just do it with eyes wide open.