Innovating: Beyond the Sex Appeal

Mental models and Innovation

Innovation, like leadership, is a word that has tremendous sex appeal. But the real sexy part is what happens when it happens. For that, you still need to do the work. Use with care.

The work includes figuring out that innovating is often about behavior change. Whether you're the company doing it or wanting to innovate, the consultants, the sponsor or partner in innovation, your behavior is also up for change.

It's important to remember that innovation demands trade-offs. For example, satellite radio offers a broader selection, but you lose free music; online grocery shopping gets you home delivery, but you lose the ability to pick the freshest foods personally.

It's also about starting with mindset. Innovating is not about fixing a problem, it's about seeking opportunity in the gap between what you know and what you don't. Because it moves us from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance, innovation leads to breakthroughs towards where we want to go even as we may not know how to get here.

To be meaningful, the gains need to be greater than the losses. Based on what motivates us, there are typically 4 main forces that drive innovation: curiosity, fear, wealth, and significance. But even when you have all of that, companies still confuse the structure of innovation with that of strategy.

I've selected three books that provide different perspectives on what it takes to innovate to get you started thinking in the right direction. Below, I'm also sharing a useful framework on seeing patterns and keeping opportunities open.


Looshots, Maps and Mechanisms

We're not short metaphors in innovation. That's because often people invent things for which there are no real words, yet. Bringing something new to the world has its risks and the rewards are not certain. Take for example the telephone.

Antonio Meucci invented it. He began to work on a device to communicate through distance when he was 26, in 1834. He was working as chief engineer in Florence Pergola Theater. He built a contraption to provide direction from the stage. He perfected his idea first in Cuba and then in New York, where he started looking for financing. 

Due to poor English he was having difficulty finding a sponsor. Therefore he applied for a loan with Western Union. Meucci sent all his technical notes and a prototype with the application. Western Union rejected the loan, but kept all the materials. The excuse was that they had misplaced them.

Here's my first sigh on his behalf. Two years later, the poor man didn't even have the 10 dollars he needed to renew a 'caveat' patent application. In waltzes Alexander Graham Bell, Western Union consultant with a lab right next to where Meucci's document were in deposit.

Bell might have been no inventor, but he was an opportunist. He deposited the telephone patent, became a celebrity, and sealed a fabulous agreement with Western Union. Make no mistake, it was not his patent.

In 1887, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the real inventor and found a judgement for fraud against Bell, but Meucci’s death two years later stopped the case. The Florentine invented one of the most amazing technologies of modern times and died a poor (and almost forgotten) man. His economic success went to another man.

The inventor of the telephone has not been officially designated for more than 100 years. On June 11, 2002, with resolution 269, the United States Congress officially recognized Antonio Meucci’s work in inventing the telephone.

If you look for these cases, you'll find them everywhere. There's a deeper reflection on ethics and behavior in this story. What world do you want to live in? To find the Meucci in your industry or company, start with who. Look for these 6 characteristics of deep innovation smarts.

Use good reference material to think about innovationits nature, orientation, and process. I selected 3 books for your reading list to get you started. Don't forget to stay until the end, where we talk about a framework.


3 books on innovation

These references are quite different from each other on purpose. Thinking differently is key. Each explores a different part of the innovation equation. I know from many conversations that what most people would love to have something simple-and-easy to do.

Give me the formula, they say. Add pixie dust and water, whichever is on hand. But, like everything worth pursuing in the field of leadership, innovation happens at the end of work. It takes work to figure out what you're not seeing or doing. But you're worth it.


Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall

The key is nurturing. Bahcall proposes a new way of thinking about the mysteries of group behavior. What's a loonshot? “A neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged.”

Book's thesis: The most significant and influential breakthroughs are often the results of loonshots, where the ultimate outcome’ pioneers are initially dismissed, written off and laughed away as being loony.

Or die in poverty, like Meucci.

Bahcall is a physicist and entrepreneur. His aim with the book is to show why teams, companies, or any group with a mission will suddenly change from embracing new ideas to rejecting them, just as flowing water will suddenly change into brittle ice.

Loonshots have their genesis in company structure and not culture, drawing a parallel from the science of phase transitions. In the author's language, to generate loonshots, you want fluidity: smaller teams with mostly creative folks (“artists”).

While to generate franchises, or even just to bring the loonshots to market, you want solidity: bigger teams staffed with “soldiers” who have well-defined roles. Perhaps this is the inventor and opportunist distinction.

Loonshot Rules:

1. Separate the phases: Separate your artists and soldiers.
2. Dynamic equilibrium: Love your artists and soldiers equally.
3. Critical mass: Have a loonshot group large enough to ignite.

In the latter part of the book, Bahcall presents a plausible quantitative model for the various forces that incline team members towards loonshot vs. franchise behavior, and how to tweak those variables to get the kind of company you want.

Two thoughts worth pondering:

“The twisted paths leading to great discoveries are the rule rather than the exception. And so are their revisionist histories: victors don't just write history; they rewrite history.”

“As teams and companies grow larger, the stakes in outcome decrease while the perks of rank increase. When the two cross, the system snaps. Incentives begin encouraging behavior no one wants. Those same groups—with the same people—begin rejecting loonshots.”

Update: When I mentioned this article on LinkedIn, Safi Bahcall pointed me to a Twitter thread he created to synthesize the key ideas of the book.


Mapping Innovation: a Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age by Greg Satell

Navigating is the operative word. The biggest problem with innovation is that it's a very broad term. Dig deeper into applications―what works for startups doesn't work for large organizations, building a new app is not the same as working on discovering something new in the lab.

I asked Greg Satell about the difference. His experience in different cultures, which is illuminating. As you saw in my example above, Italians have plenty of smart, innovative people but so little funding and structure around it.

This is a strength in Satell's book. His “Innovation Matrix” and his “Horizons of innovation” frameworks are powerful, yet simple tools to understand the continuum of innovation, activities, time horizons and resource allocation.

As he says:

“The purpose of this book is threefold. First, it will help you get a better understanding of innovation by dispelling destructive innovation myths. Innovations don’t happen just because someone comes up with one big idea. It takes many ideas to solve an important problem, and that requires a collective effort.

Second, this book will give you valuable tools to help you frame the problems that are important to you. As you will see, it is only by framing problems effectively that you can find the approach most likely to solve them. Finally, it will help explain how innovation in the digital age is different from what it was in previous generations. Simply put, technology has given us powerful new tools, and we need to learn how to use them effectively.”


How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom by Matt Ridley

Flourishing is a key concept. Ridley makes a stronger case for the conditions that prevent it.

His 3 main ideas:

  1. Important innovations tend to arise from many people improving incrementally upon the work of others. The singular inventor's “Eureka!” moment is largely a myth. This point resonates with Greg Satell's, “You don't need the best people, you need the best teams.”
  2. Recent regulatory hurdles have hindered innovation, particularly in Europe.
  3. The net impact of intellectual property laws has been to hinder innovation as well.

Ridley seems to focus on points 2 and 3:

“Innovations come in many forms, but one thing they all have in common, and which they share with biological innovations created by evolution, is that they are enhanced forms of improbability.”

“The twentieth century saw only one innovative source of energy on any scale: nuclear power. (Wind and solar, though much improved and with a promising future, still supply less than 2 per cent of global energy.)  In terms of its energy density, nuclear is without equal: an object the size of a suitcase, suitably plumbed in, can power a town or an aircraft carrier almost indefinitely.

The development of civil nuclear power was a triumph of applied science, the trail leading from the discovery of nuclear fission and the chain reaction through the Manhattan Project's conversion of a theory into a bomb, to the gradual engineering of a controlled nuclear reaction and its application to boiling water.”

Update: Here's an interview with Matt Ridley by Naval.

Seeing patterns and keeping opportunities open

I promised a framework to get oriented. This is courtesy of Steven Johnson. In Where Good Ideas Come From, he provides a framework to look at the general laws of innovation.

For all the talk about innovation, though, we still do little of it. There are many reasons why. Ridely put it best, “Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of innovation is how unpopular it is, for all the lip service we pay to it.”

Overused has many interesting synonyms, including: drained, dull, exhausted, mildewed, overworked, stale, tired, worn and worn-out, stereotyped. They depend on context, but all have something in commonthere's no energy there.

Innovation thrives on energy. Make it positive, and you're on your way to creating value, and impact.

[image of mental models and innovation]


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