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It’s funny what sticks with you. For me, it’s an image of a squirrel constantly scanning for any potential threat, like the one I saw just outside my window the other morning. The squirrel was scavenging for seeds underneath the bird feeder where, as the squirrel already knew, there’s always an ample supply. But all those seeds that had been scattered across the snow were now covered by several inches of new powder. So the squirrel was digging holes down to that layer of seeds.

In business, we often know where the seeds are, if we can just get to them. We know our niche, our customer base. We know there are revenues to be found, if we can just uncover them. Even when we wake up one morning and find that an economic storm has passed and made those seeds harder to find, we can get to them if we keep digging.

But that squirrel was doing something else that had nothing to do with finding those seeds. Every few seconds, his little head would pop up and take a quick look around, then go back to the task at hand. It was a constant interruption to his work and yet to him it was a something he felt compelled to do. Conditioned by eons of natural selection in favor of the cautious, he was constantly on the lookout for potential predators.

It’s that second behavior that tends to drive innovation. There may be no imminent threat, nothing to fear, no reason to flee, but the squirrel keeps looking—just in case. Because he knows that what he can’t see can hurt him. He knows that danger may be just out of sight and in order to be safe he must be constantly alert.

In business we confuse safety with current success. We assume that as long as we can get to the seeds, we’re fine. We tell ourselves that we have to work so hard for those seeds that we don’t have time to look around. Isn’t that what the investment markets are constantly telling us: Just gather as many seeds as you can each quarter? Take your eye off of that task even briefly and we’ll lose confidence in you. We’ll go find a squirrel who knows how to block out the distractions and focus on those seeds.

A squirrel that may soon be dead because no one saw any threat coming.

 The paradox of innovation is that it requires the courage to take risks, yet it’s also grounded in caution, the realization that threats can appear suddenly—from competitors, new technologies, market shifts, and of course other innovators. In business today, focusing only on the immediate task at hand may be one of the riskiest things we can do. We need to be constantly scanning the market, monitoring our competitors, talking to our customers, looking for potential threats and opportunities. We need to prepare to change whatever we’re doing—no matter how productive it may appear to be at the moment.

Like that squirrel, we need to keep popping up our heads.