March 28, 2019

Nutjob or Innovator? You Decide.

Whether you work in a large organization or a startup, you probably feel some pressure to innovate. After all, our American culture is engineered—both deliberately and inadvertently—to promote creativity. Think of all the movies, for example, that glamorize inventors both real and fictional: Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, the windshield wiper dude in Flash of Genius, and more farcical yarns like Iron Man, Ghostbusters, Willy Wonka, and Back to the Future.

Besides glamorization, what movies, novels, biographies, and other inventor profiles have in common is the portrait of the inventor as an outsider. Most of them are characterized as nutjobs by their neighbors and co-workers, but they prevail through sheer determination and belief in some end state not obvious to the rest of us. There’s some truth in this, right? It’s hard to be an iconoclast in cozy neighborhoods or large organizations where conventional wisdom rules the day.

So how do you, too, become a nutjob and create breakthrough innovation? You need to be brave—that part’s up to you. You also need to think differently. Here, let us help you get started:

Ready? On Three...

How does, say, Elon Musk come up with all the good stuff? It turns out that he actually has a codified approach for how to think about a problem. He uses a three-step process built upon a concept known as “first principles” and, while the approach is borne out of physics, it can be applied to just about any challenge.

Sometimes the Questions Are Better Than the Answers

Or you can try the Simon Sinek approach and ask: “Why?” His original TED talk (which has been viewed 43M times) spawned a lot of interpretation. We are not sure that “why” all by itself is sufficient to drive breakthroughs, but it’s a great place to start.

Political Science

If it’s just a matter of thinking differently, why doesn’t everyone innovate?

The number-one reason for a lack of innovation in large companies is “politics, turf wars, and lack of alignment.” And culture is number two. If you work in a big company and want to innovate, it’s always helpful to know what you’re up against, right?

A new book called Loonshots tackles the question of how to jump-start innovation in a calcified organization. Like Elon Musk, the author, a physicist named Safi Bahcall, draws on science to illustrate how to refocus resources on breakthroughs. It’s all about ice, apparently.


Break Out the Test Tubes

There is a little nugget in the survey of big companies mentioned in #3 that struck a note with all of us at Spark, probably because it’s what we do all day:

One key enabler of innovation, referenced by more than half of our survey respondents, was the “ability to test, learn, and iterate.” How well does your company run quick-and-dirty experiments, gather the results, and then try again?

How does experimentation help address some of the organizational challenges that inhibit innovation? Data. It’s a lot more difficult to dampen a spark when data shows its value. And of course data can be just as helpful in preventing disasters: running an experiment early in the product development process can reduce the risk of investing in the wrong thing.

Bonus Round: Trivia Inventor

Flash of Genius was based on the story of Robert Kearns, whose intermittent windshield wiper invention was more or less stolen by Big Auto. But who invented the windshield wiper in the first place? Answer is right here.


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