While the word innovation might be a bit overused these days, the concept is sound. The Latin root of the word is “innovo,” which means to alter, renew or restore. In business, to renew represents opportunity and to alter symbolizes transformation. Yet change doesn’t always mean a better outcome. That’s why a more useful meaning of innovation might be “preemptive problem solving.”
In business, people use creativity to solve problems other people don’t even know they have. For example, we didn’t know we needed an iPod until Apple told us we did. With more than 350 million units sold in 10 years, it’s clear the need existed, but iPod sales are now on the decline. In business, science and the arts, new products and services may not be totally original. In many cases, they are likely a re-mix of existing technology or thought. The iPhone, while innovative, was arguably a stylish and cool re-mix of existing mobile technology, but a huge dose of imagination contributed to the buzz.
Imagination, Failure and Grit
What drives innovation is imagining that which has not yet been done. The idea could be tiny or enormous. Either way, it provides a solution to a known or unknown problem. In this context, the Wright Brothers come to mind. Ben Franklin is a poster child. We can add Louis Pasteur, Alexander Graham Bell, The Beatles and Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com.
While preemptive problem solving demands imagination, the concepts are all too frequently abandoned due to a lack of follow-through. To turn a unique idea into reality, a person must have more than vision. He or she must possess the passion (some would call it hunger) to see the project through, accept massive repeated failures, and make sure that the business culture or arena in which they work allows both imagination and failure.
Beyond innovation and passion, innovators need persistence, perseverance and even some “grit” to press on after repeated failure. Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of Outliers: The Story of Success, says it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice to see success. Using these ingredients, an innovation formula might look something like:
Innovation = Preemptive Problem Solving ≈
30 Parts Imagination + 20 Parts Failure + 50 Parts Grit
What does it take to create an environment where innovation flourishes? It takes a corporate culture that inspires people and allows their imagination to run freely. It exists in companies that see problems not as challenges but rather as opportunities. It also takes tolerance of failure. Does your company have a collaborative and supportive culture that lets you spread your wings and evolve as a high-performing contributor? Does your organization tolerate and even encourage mistakes as a means to success?
To succeed at innovation, personalize it. Look at your business or creative life and notice which “parts” you give more weight to. Then make any adjustments you think are necessary and proceed with the belief that anything is possible.