Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Originally published for Forbes - Feb 8, 2017
Until recently, “innovator” wasn't an official role at many companies. It was unofficially reserved for those who were pioneers in their fields. While this hasn’t changed, more companies are now proactively seeking out innovators rather than discovering them as fortunate byproducts of a job well done.
Today, a role in innovation is highly coveted. However, it’s hard to describe and even harder to demonstrate how it moves the needle within an organization. But to be sure, innovation has moved every needle in every organization.
I’ve seen firsthand what it takes to go against common thinking to arrive at innovation. The technology company I started introduced real-time TV measurement to an industry accustomed to waiting 30 days for the same data -- no one had thought about it yet. Along the way, I’ve touched nearly every aspect of the business, including product, marketing, sales, and accounts. At times, I was even the janitor. But through it all, one role was consistent: the innovator.
Recently I decided to return to creating innovative business opportunities like I had in the early days, and I took on the role of The Strategic Head of Innovative Technologies. But such a position might be hard for other companies to quantify and fill based on standard qualifications. The fact of the matter is that there is no one way to define innovators. Who are they? How do they get it done? While the process of innovation is fairly complex, there are a few little-known rules that seem to guide all innovators.
Rule One: They Start With “What if …”
These two words are a statement, not a question, born of a rare curiosity and naiveté that moves a seemingly rational person to question the most profitable situations, in the same manner, they’d question the least. It results in deconstructing and reconstructing iteratively while others judge their efforts as futile, irrelevant, or antagonistic. In a world of square holes, the innovator is a round peg who sees past the current limitations that define and restrict others.
In a conversation about innovation, it's hard not to mention Steve Jobs — especially when it comes to questioning the status quo. For over a decade, Nokia and Blackberry were industry leaders in both personal and business cell phones, due to their cost-effectiveness and reliability. But then in 2007 something crazy happened: Apple and its CEO Steve Jobs didn’t just introduce a better phone, they completely redefined expectations of what a phone could do.
Rule 2: They Don’t Confuse Innovation With Invention
Think of invention as the stacks of patents behind the circuitry, processors, connectivity, and form factors. And think of innovation as the smartphone. Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest inventors that ever lived, but he didn't redefine his industry the way Steve Jobs did.
Necessity drives invention but binds the inventor from moving forward. The innovator pushes through known limitations, not by creating immediate solutions, but by redefining problems altogether and then stepping into the unknown to solve them.
Rule 3: Their Ideas Look Like Failure In The Beginning
When innovators share what they’re working on early in the process, they open the floodgates to premature criticism. This is only natural considering that innovation stems from a singular vision that no one else sees yet.
Seasoned innovators have learned through experience to be wary of upfront collaboration. It’s difficult to explain motives around an intangible concept, especially considering that, by definition, they can’t point to others who are doing the same thing.
To the outsider, no one else is working on it for good reason: Innovation can look a lot like a failure in the beginning. Remember that even personal computing was considered technological folly in the 1970s, and pioneers in the space were mocked for developing such an unnecessary product. In fact, Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, is famously quoted as saying, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
Rule 4: They Inevitably Have To Defend Their Ideas
Innovators know they’re onto something good when they come face to face with three final challenges on the path to adoption. The first challenge is the incumbents in the space; competitors who fear the impact of new ideas. These competitors may assault the viability of the perceived threat, and try to eliminate early signs of disruption. The next challenge is the end customer, who will question the need for such drastic change — mostly from the perspective of not wanting to change their habits. And the final challenge, which builds on the previous two, is the investor. Because innovation is judged against a standard and tangible criteria, like progress to date, market penetration, and the addressable markets, the investor watches how the innovator addresses competitors’ attempts to keep them down, and how the end customer reacts to the changes.
Knowing that these challenges are inevitable for progressing their innovation, the innovator should prepare to face them head-on and defend their ideas at all costs.
Rule 5: They Know They Need To Step Back
Innovators often think they want to be engrossed in the daily operations, but they quickly learn that their role is to innovate, not operate. True innovators get out of the way and let others bring their work to market.
For me, this meant leaving my ego behind to enable the company to become successful in standard operating mode. It wasn’t what I had originally planned to do, but it was something I had to do to move the company forward. Turning over ultimate authority to others in the organization was difficult, but it gave me the time to refocus on the next phases of innovation and to again consider “What if…”