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Innovation Isn’t Change

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Innovation isn’t change. It may seem like a minor difference but this is actually a huge distinction. Change is moving away from something; innovation is moving towards something.

Moving away from something is always traumatic while moving towards something is almost always a euphoric experience. Consider the following two examples of friends of mine who lost their positions during the Great Recession. Both are remarkable men with sterling credentials and prodigious ambition. Each is the primary earner in their household and takes their obligations to their families seriously. These kinds of people are seldom unemployed even in the worst circumstances.

The first responded to the dreadful news by rushing around indiscriminately, desperately trying to find a new job. He went to work in a field in which he had little experience and in a position for which he was overqualified. More so, he viewed his job as a temporary holding place for his career and his new employer knew it. What followed was seven years of moving from post to post always trying to stay ahead of the bad news but in actuality reacting to his own fear of getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time again.

The second decided to use the downturn as an opportunity to pursue a life dream of opening a bakery. This was an unusual choice for someone who had previously been an insurance executive. While he missed the perks of being perceived as important, especially the paycheck, he enjoyed his newfound freedom and the personal interaction with his small staff and the customers who visited his petit boulangerie. Though the new career brought sacrifice for him and his family it was viewed as the manifestation of a shared vision. This kept them optimistic and even inspired during the difficult early going.

Change left my first friend moving backwards, trying to make something not happen, while innovation kept my other friend moving forward, trying to realize a dream.

We remember and write about Christopher Columbus today because he was moving towards something—not away from something. He wanted to find a Western route to the Spice Islands - Malaysia and Indonesia. Like most Europeans of his time, he was confused about the size of the planet and the constellation of the contents, but only the ignorant of the day thought the world was flat given the luster and pursuit of riches via the Spice Trade and the Silk Road.

A former admiral and a brilliant navigator, Columbus sent multiple ships with different hulls, keels, crews, and types of provisions. All of the ships took slightly different routes. Columbus was hedging, which is completely different from change. He was saying, “I don’t have information right now. I need to gain information so I’m going to spread my portfolio at the beginning of this venture.”

This is no different than what venture capitalists do today. They make relatively small investments in diverse therapies for the same disease state. They fail forward by accelerating the cycle of trial and error just like Columbus.

While change works to remove constraints, innovation uses them to drive higher order solutions. Progress has a visible trajectory but only when viewed as history. Consider the evolution of transportation that becomes the revolution of communication when our ambition for speed moves us from the physical to the virtual. Trains become cars become jets become the web become smart phones become the internet of things where every device talks to every other without human effort. The seemingly insurmountable impediment initiates the novel solution. For example, if Kepler had a computer, we might still be living in a Copernican universe because it would be easy to calculate epicycles. It was the problem, the constraint that brought the answer; not unfettered freedom.

Innovation and change require two different mindsets. Change may be described as the “make it stop” or “make it better” mindset. While the innovation mindset might be best be described by “make it different” or even “make it new.” The former pushes you away from an undesired state while the later pulls you towards a desired state. In either case, “magical thinking” is dangerous. The ubiquitous blather of “just think happy thoughts and the world will change” is both superstitious and narcissistic. The whole of humanity and the universe in which it is contained is neither your slave nor fairy godmother. What is needed are multiple experiments with reality. Try many things, fail early and fail often—to find what works, and doesn’t.

Develop a deep sense of destiny and it will change, no strike that, it will innovate the way you think about the voyage. Just remember to be open to what you might discover along the way.

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