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Beautiful Innovation Orphans

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In the captivating fairy tales of the Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm there is often a perfect and pure magical child who is unmercifully mistaken for an ordinary mortal. What ensues is the cathartic story of their trials and torment until they overcome the ordeal and are reveled as the princess or magus or hero and the world is made right. Sadly life seldom follows fiction in such family matters. The same is true for innovations that are remarkable in all ways save one – they languish in want of someone to love them.

My unusual occupation takes me to some of the most astonishing technical centers and research labs hidden from the watchful eyes of the uninitiated. Out of sight and far out of mind, these investigators and simulators summon up their genies and phantasms in the blasé shadow of our mundane world. Our kind is capable of conjuring the most astonishing enchantments that twist and turn the very story of nature – Miracle drugs that cure the incurable, molecular alchemy that turns dirty water clean and ubiquitous beams of light that bring power to the powerless.

But for those on the outside looking in it is all too easy to mistake the unfamiliar for the untrue. The illuminating lamp of possibility is dimmed by the pall of palatability. We fear what we do not understand and we do not understand much. And even for those brave souls that dare to venture forth, the new is always impractical by definition for it does not comfortably conform to the old. So it is little wonder that great ideas high born in the rarified terroir of the lauded research lab or creativity cluster or fashionable design studio often go unnoticed, unattended and unloved. Much of what we generally take to be the future is actually the past languishing in some forsaken corner like wistful Snow White or servile Cinderella.

There are three basic archetypes of innovation orphans that are readily recognizable but not so easily adopted:

1. Innovation orphans that are not seen nor heard: Innovation research labs and the like are an invitation only affair. Only the good, the smart and the anointed are granted entrance for they alone are entrusted with keeping our most ingenious ideas as well as our sacred trust. When so few people see or hear of an idea there is little chance of it being adopted.

* How to see and hear the innovation orphans: Find the fairy godmothers. Seek them out in their secret places and petition their sound council. Accept them in all their mercurial splendor and interpret their enigmatic directions. Treat it like a riddle to be unwound or quest to be undertaken and you may well find what you seek.

2. Innovation orphans that are not easily understood: Sophisticated frameworks, complex methods and arcane vernacular make even the most experienced innovator feel amateurish and dim. What is counterintuitive is not easily simplified or aligned with our strategic aims. So while we may feel a wizardly idea is worthwhile we don’t know what to do with it.

* How to understand the innovation orphans: Each time we hear a story we travel in the company of the knowing narrator. They are not only the teller of the tale but also the crone or chronicler that give it meaning and make sense of it. Find the wise one that can interpret and translate the substance and uses of a new idea or innovation.

3. Innovation orphans that represent a changing of the guard: Radical ideas are as threatening to the powers that be as zealous revolutionaries are to the political establishment. Each breakthrough unseats an incumbent product or service and potentially the enterprise that makes and sells it. The only motivation greater than the aspiration to grow is the primal impulse for self preservation.

* How to protect an innovation orphan from the old guard: Every new idea needs a hero to protect it before it can defend itself. Bureaucracy and conformity are the battlements of the entrenched. But every old champion remembers well that they too were once young and will recount the glory of their own guardians. Appeal to their sense of honor and desire to once again be renewed by battle.

Innovation orphans need to be adopted. Though they might not be invented here, or by you, they may be worthy of your support. Just be sure that you really love them.

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