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Innovation: There Is No Final Destination

Jeff DeGraff
Jeff DeGraff
Jeff DeGraff

Innovations don’t stay innovations. There’s that drawer in all of our houses with the electronics, gadgets, and devices that were the it-thing in their own time and now have outgrown their usefulness and creativity. The challenge is not to become innovative but to stayinnovative.

How do you stay competitive and drive growth on a long-term horizon?

Change your mind. In almost all other forms of thinking, consistency is a good thing. But in the unconventional realm of innovation, consistency is overrated. All of these larger forces outside of your control are constantly changing—political climates, economic realities, technological developments, medical discoveries, and countless others. You need to be flexible in adapting to these forces and making them work for you. Keep experimenting and looking for better ways of doing things. Remember that your first idea is almost never your best idea.

Seek out incongruities. Conflicting data and trends can become great inspiration for unexpected innovations, because most people simply ignore these incongruities. For example, even as digital publishing and e-books dominate the literary marketplace, there is still a powerful segment of the population that wants and values print books. Over time, an innovation often reverses into its opposite. Anticipating these incongruities will put you ahead of the game and help you stay innovative.

Look for outliers and wildcards. These are things that others normally don’t look at. A wildcard is something that most people don’t incorporate into their long-term planning even though it actually happens on a regular basis: meteorological disasters, disease outbreaks, work stoppages. Being prepared for wildcards will give you the first-mover’s advantage.

In 2012, IBM conducted a study of over 1,700 CEOs around the world, and found that the biggest quality executives are looking for is creativity. What do these managers and leaders mean by creativity? They’re looking for people who are hungry for change, who can beinnovative beyond customer imagination. They want thinkers who are globally integratedin their approaches. They seek out individuals who are genuine; not just generous. And, finally, they want experimenters who are disruptive by nature. We value conformity in so many aspects of our everyday lives, but when it comes to innovation, conformity is something to avoid. Innovation is a form of deviation, and so innovators must be deviants.

In the early twentieth century, William McKnight came up with the now-famous 3M strategy test—a set of three questions to ask about an idea initiative. Now, almost a century later, they are still the best questions: Is it real? Can we win? Is it worth doing?

It’s no longer enough to be innovative. You need to stay innovative in an ever-changing world where innovation has a shelf life. There is no “there” in innovation. If you’ve developed the miracle drug, there’s always another miracle drug to make. If you’ve opened the great restaurant, there’s always a second restaurant. We’ve never fully arrived: whenever we get where we think we wanted to get, there’s a new place to reach. It’s not about the destination—it’s about the destination after the destination.