Permit me to draw an analogy between fishing and innovation, one that I think provides some important insights. We’ve all heard the old saw about giving someone a fish versus teaching them to fish. But there’s an added level of expertise that goes beyond teaching someone to fish—and it’s the same kind of expertise that innovation requires.
In his acclaimed bestseller, Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about what he calls the “Flywheel Effect.” He describes how small actions and decisions, made over a period of time, add up to sustained momentum and success for great companies—like small nudges building momentum on a flywheel. I agree and riffing on his metaphor, I would add that our flywheel can be turning in either direction. It’s possible that a series of seemingly small decisions and incremental actions can gradually undermine our success. So the key question becomes: Which direction is your flywheel turning?
There’s a prevalent and long-perpetuated myth about innovators, that they are persistent; they don’t give up. Renowned innovators like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison have even said it of themselves, crediting their success in part on their persistence. But it’s at best a poor choice of words and at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of what innovation entails, even by some of its best practitioners.
We now live in a world in which not only our economic future, but our future security rests in large part on our creativity, our capacity to innovate. It’s yet another reason why strengthening our competence as innovators is such an imperative.
Great innovations are often based on powerful intuitions, but we all know examples of someone thinking they have a great intuition and being misguided. So where does intuition fit into innovation and how do we know when we can rely on it?
One of the principal challenges any innovator faces is persuading others of the value of an idea. It is a frequent source of frustration and angst, and an absolutely essential innovation skill.
When it comes to innovation, making good predictions isn’t about trying to discern where the world is headed as much as where we might take the world. It’s an imaginative process (often just as imaginative as coming up with ideas in the first place). Innovation is not about predicting the future we’re expecting but rather achieving the future we want to create.
Being willing to fail, to be wrong, is one of the key characteristics of an innovator. You don’t have to like failure, and you certainly don’t want to go looking for it. But you have to be willing to accept it and move on in order to find the rare gems you’re seeking.
As innovators, do we want people who won’t take “No” for an answer? Or, do we want people who pick up on the “No’s” quickly and adjust their thinking to find a creative work around?