Is the first step of innovation ignoring all the advice?

Regardless of how one defines innovation, there is no shortage of people offering guidance on how innovation should be done properly, how it can be done more efficiently, how it definitely should NOT be done, how it has been done in selected successful companies and – most dangerously – how it can be done successfully in a proven, repeatable manner. It is, after all, good business to be in the business of solving everyone else’s problems – or at least pretending to.

If you read just one such book/article on innovation (or any business topic for that matter), chances are that considered in isolation it seems to make sense, and you’re like “a-ha! So this is how it goes!”. And you’d be wrong. Read another one and you’ll begin to understand that, as in most matters prone to over-simplification, as soon as you take a look at more than one piece of advice you will find they conflict. Read a few more and what emerges is what could either be called a mess where everybody conflicts with everyone else or a healthy discourse on a complex topic. In any case, nobody can claim they have the whole thing figured out holistically and universally.

Now, one area of such conflicts that has risen again is whether innovation is the result of perseverance, a matter of coming up with great ideas in the first place, pivoting from your plans when needed or perhaps something else. Pivoting in this context (for those who are not familiar with the term that was coined by Eric Ries) basically just means changing course when something isn’t working and trying your best to identify, in as lean, fast and cheap way as possible, when that something isn’t working.

Those who subscribe to the perseverance camp – that you need to be ready to stick to something long enough and eventually you will succeed – rightly point out that many innovations are the result of doggedly pursuing a goal despite adverse experiences or advise or even market feedback to the contrary. I can’t help but think that many innovations would’ve been impossible if the people working on them had followed Ries’ advice on pivoting. The first argument against this camp is along the lines of the old definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. But the thing is, it’s essentially impossible to keep doing the exact same thing because, at a minimum, the environment around you changes constantly.

One of the examples given by the “persevere” camp is Rovio, and how their runaway success Angry Birds was the company’s 52nd game. Rovio, however, is a bad example – one could just as easily argue that all they did was pivot 51 times, and eventually found a hit.

Things that require years and years of development are a better example; it’s hard, if not impossible, to use “lean startup” methodology for products that require groundbreaking research. Sometimes it is prudent to just keep trying. And as much as people extol the creative innovations of startups (to which the lean startup methodology is, quite naturally, most applicable), sometimes it is necessary to have a (really) big company to successfully bring out a big-hitting innovation. Like, say, the iPhone – which required not only huge resources but also perseverance to create in the first place – and once it was out in the market; the original iPhone was not a blockbuster in terms of initial sales. And what comes to other businesses, far too often people forget that practically all other areas of business move far slower than electronics.

My view on all this is that there is a very simple top-level answer: it depends. And as much as that seems to be a cop-out, I think it’s much of the other advice that is a cop-out – and not only a cop-out, but outright misleading. Giving innovators a “formula” for success, or companies a “proven method for innovation” makes for a good story and good business because people always seem to want a simple success formula.

It does not, however, make the advise valid or even valuable. It’s also worth remembering that neither pivots nor MVPs nor really any of the other “new” terms out there are really new – they are just new ways of formulating existing concepts and approaches that have been used long before someone coined the specific terminology.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that all innovation advise that’s out there is useless. There are many lessons to be learned from many of the innovation “camps”, with the emphasis on the plural. You need to consider the entire spectrum, take the bits relevant to your organization and apply them with whatever modifications are necessary.

To end with, here are some recent views on innovation:

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