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Innovation Series: Innovation and The Sorcerer's Stone

Originally published for Forbes - May 24, 2018 (modified)

Even people skilled at seeking out and investing in innovation have a hard time recognizing it the first time they see it. The reality is that innovation, in its nascent form, is awkward, and it is difficult to share in the creator’s vision to see what it will become rather than what it currently is.

Even early adopters don’t come face to face with innovation until it’s been fundamentally realized and made market-ready. True innovation is the edgy, unpretty process that happens far before that point. For those investing in innovation, this part of the process should hold the most beauty and opportunity...if they can see it.

As someone who has experience as an innovative technologist in the banking world, and has since founded a company built directly on a foundation of innovation, I remember thinking at one point that I had it all figured out -- that I was that rare person who could spot the stuff a mile away.

One chance encounter proved me wrong. It was at a pub in Edinburgh. In the summer of 1995. There was a woman sitting alone by the stairway entrance. She had wild red hair, a pale complexion, and was sitting at the table with her head down, a pencil in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She had a concerned and frustrated expression on her face. Surrounding her were piles of handwritten pages.

I introduce myself and asked her an obvious question. "What are you writing?"

She smiled, slowly blinked and looked me in the eyes, and said one word. "Nonsense."

As we talked that afternoon, I admit that I zoned out while she talked about wizards and monsters and flying brooms. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, while watching an interview with Barbara Walters, that I realized that the woman who introduced herself as “Joanie” was none other than J.K. Rowling, and those stacks of handwritten pages were Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as it's known in the U.S.).

As legend has it, Rowling was turned down by 12 publishing firms before being picked up by a lesser-known literary agent in London. Overnight, she became the most read author of her generation and placed herself in the top 10 selling fiction authors of all time. Clearly, the 12 publishing firms and I had a lot in common.

So, what does this have to do with innovation? What I had seen, and subsequently what the 12 publishing firms had seen, was innovation; it just wasn’t market-ready yet. I’ve since learned that there are subtle but major nuances that separate the weird from the wonderful and the absurd from the innovative. Being able to spot these nuances takes a trained eye, requires suspending disbelief and having a fairly advanced grasp of the rules of innovation before passing judgment. Here is what I think those rules are:

1. Innovation can happen anywhere. In technology, we often assume that meaningful breakthroughs can only come from the great innovation meccas like Silicon Valley and Cambridge. Innovators are certainly attracted to these hubs, but they are not necessarily born there. Innovation isn’t limited to certain geography; it can be found anywhere -- even in a small pub in the middle of Edinburgh.

2. Innovation prefers a passion to a pedigree. The greatest minds from the greatest schools can sometimes be outdone by those with passion and dedication. Rowling was denied entrance to Oxford and admittedly spent more time listening to the Smiths and reading the works of Tolkien and Dickens. She did possess an unrivaled passion for her vision and work when she set upon it.

3. Innovation doesn’t always look the part…whatever that may be. In work, as in life, it’s very easy to write off talent based on what it looks like. This is especially true when the mental constructs we’ve built aren’t yet sophisticated enough to account for the fact that there is no single look of innovation.

But I didn’t yet know that when I was at that bar with J.K. Rowling. If you had asked me then, I was the innovator in that room, not her. I was a director of a division of Royal Bank of Scotland, wearing my Savile Row suit. I "looked" the part. She didn’t.

4. Innovation can look and sound awkward at first. In fact, sometimes innovation can sound downright crazy -- like flying wizards on brooms…

As the innovator, it’s crucial to know that an idea in progress will inevitably experience growing pains. It will change, appear awkward to most and some will make fun of it if they’re exposed to it too early. As an investor in innovation, it’s important to be able to distinguish between innovation that’s going through its “awkward phase” and something that's simply a bad idea. I failed that test miserably. Flying wizards and brooms, indeed.

5. Innovation looks like hard work. J.K. Rowling spent many lonely hours and worked through untold periods of stress before anyone realized she was onto something special. No true innovator makes it look easy or has abundant time and resources. They carve it out and make it happen.

This experience was a gift that speaks to me very personally regarding our roles and innovation. Every time I’m tempted to think that I have it all figured out, it is there to remind me of the time that I completely missed innovation when it was "literally" staring me right in the face.

As an investor in innovation, this is the reality for each of us every day. Investors and entrepreneurs, developers and marketers, buyers, and sellers. I ask you to keep your eyes and ears open and step beyond the boundaries that protect your opinions from scrutiny and just listen openly every once in a while. You are not always going to get it right, but hopefully, you won't get it terribly wrong, either.

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