An area like innovation needs to be approached with care. And cautionary words are quite often in order. So I thought I’d pass along a caution sent to me this week by a very good friend of mine.
When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets-
he is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize
Divides him. He cares.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting-
And the need to win
Drains him of power.
From THE WAY OF CHUANG TZU
Innovation Should Not Be a Focus
When things are discovered which we later recognize as “innovation”, it’s not because someone is searching to “be innovative”. They are searching for the smartest way forward. The best solution to a problem. The less expensive way to make a product. Or a better way to drill a hole, cut down a tree, keep a facility secure, or care for your skin.
In all my work with exceptional people who do innovative things, none of them said they were innovators. Their focus was simply doing their absolute creative best in their work.
When someone (or a company) focuses on “innovation” they focus on the brass buckle or the prize of gold. In other words, to focus on innovation drains them of power.
Truth is, when we do our work right, innovation will follow. But fuss about being innovative and we’ll do no better than anyone else in the company.
Innovation is an abstract word (like “art”) which cannot be well described. My own definition of “innovation” leans to “I know it when I see it”.
Great artists focus on making the painting, sculpture, or print which they see in their mind and leave it to others to declare it to be art. Just so, people doing advanced work should simply focus on doing their work smartly. Let’s leave it to others to declare innovation.
There Is No Inside or Outside the Box with Innovation
My frustration with setting innovation as a focus started with the “think outside the box” hype in the 1990s.
This was first encountered in seminar at my ad agency where we were extorted to think outside the box. Except, the seminar was put on by the guy in the company who had dedicated his life to building boxes and telling us to stay in them.
Those who do innovative things don’t worry about boxes (inside out or not). They focus on making important things happen. In fact, with new products, innovation is usually found in how we build the first box of communication to define that product for the market.
Strategic Focus Is More Effective
Those who lead the way developing new things, whether for internal or external delivery, do so by focusing on big strategic goals and how their work contributes to those goals. If they are a research scientist, then discovery is key to strategic success. If they are a marketer, we need to focus on putting products & communication into the market which ensure demand today and grow additional demand tomorrow.
In other words, the fastest way to the future is by considering how we deliver the biggest strategic result through our work and in our realm of action — all while refusing to fall prey to group think or to self-imposed/group-imposed limitations.
Isn’t This A Bit Awkward For Me?
Here’s the thing… I write a lot about innovation. And have spent a career bringing innovative things to market — whether goods, services, or combinations of goods and services.
So… Yes, it’s a bit awkward. I write liberally about this word which is so difficult to define and which is only achieved by focusing on something else.
Yet it IS important to talk about innovation because, in retrospect, we CAN identify things which are innovative and which made tremendous difference for companies and their customers. It IS important for companies to do those things. And it IS important for executives to be scanning the horizon of work in the company to embrace and encourage those things which lead to innovation.
At the same time, my liberal arts, history, math, artist, and music background suspects situations like this are more common than any businesses school wants to admit — where we must focus on one thing to deliver another. The important things in life happen on non-linear pathways.
©2019 Doug Garnett — All Rights Reserved
Through my company Protonik, LLC based in Portland Oregon, I work with clients to drive innovation success with better marketing of new and innovative products and services — work which needs to start before market analysis. I also work with clients attempting to bring new life to Shelf Potatoes or take their existing products to new markets. You can read more about these services and my unusual background (math, aerospace, supercomputers, consumer goods & national TV ads) at www.Protonik.net.