What do we mean when we say that every company, every organization, needs to continually innovate?
It means that every company and every organization needs to continually innovate! Or, they will be left behind, and maybe even cease to exist.
There is no alternative.
This post is prompted by a question that I asked a good friend. First, the background. There is an article critical of the TED conference, written by Nathan Jurgenson. (I read about it on Andrew Sullivan’s blog: TED Talks: “The Urban Outfitters Of The Ideas World. The full article, Against TED, is available at The New Inquiry here).
I am a big fan of TED; I have watched many of the videos, and shown them to my speech students. I’m not sure that I buy Jurgenson’s criticism. Here is one line from his article:
At TED, “everyone is Steve Jobs” and every idea is treated like an iPad.
Now, I own an iPad, I have presented a synopsis of the Isaacson Steve Jobs biography, I am a raving fan of the innovation of Apple, and I got to thinking… Is it in fact “fair” to compare all companies and organizations to Apple? Should we expect that level of innovation in all the rest of the world of business, and nonprofits? In other words, does every company and every organization need to continually innovate?
Now, acknowledging the obvious, that genius like Steve Jobs’ genius is not available for purchase on the shelf at your local grocery store, let me say that yes, the quote is not that far off: “At TED, “everyone is Steve Jobs” and every idea is treated like an iPad.” And, that is what we should do with ideas. We should keep looking for that next profitable, successful idea, and then the next one, and then the next next one. It is the only path to innovation. And if we do not continually innovate, we are in deep, deep trouble.
After reading the TED criticism, I called a friend of mine; an exceptional business consultant/coach. You’ve seen his face on TV, representing a company that became more successful with his help. My question went something like this:
“I know that companies that are directly impacted by technology have to keep innovating. But, does every company have to continually innovate? Aren’t there companies that simply provide a product of service, and basically they keep providing the same product or service. Oh, sure, they will upgrade their software occasionally. But, continually innovate? Really?”
I wondered if this pressure to continually innovate just might not be so “necessary” in quite a few arenas.
Well, this is a smart man, and when he was through with me, I was fully whipped. He told me of one client of his: they provide a product that was basically put out of business by a previously unknown competitor who developed a cheaper, better way to provide the same product. It had to do with what goes inside the “shell” of the product that they manufactured and sold. So, this company had to adapt, quickly. They had to modify what they put inside their own shell, find a new market for their product, and then churn out the product for less than they thought possible. Their innovation saved their company – and quite a few jobs. If they had failed to innovate, they would have had to close the doors.
I started thinking about other examples — example after example. Just look around. What restaurants did you used to eat at – and they are now shuttered? (Does anyone else miss the Steak & Ale salad bar?) What about hotels that you used to stay at? Recently, my wife and I stayed at a three year old Holiday Inn. It is nothing! like the Holiday Inns we stayed at early in our marriage (we married back in the dark ages, when there was no cable TV, not even a remote control, and tennis rackets were still made of wood. I played with a Jack Kramer autograph).
Maybe the only path forward is to treat every new idea like an iPad – a breakthrough for this moment, but soon to be outdated by the new version. Someone will come up with the new version. It is better that you do this yourself.
No matter what your business, it really is a “you’d better learn how to continually innovate” world out there. And here is the value of TED. TED, if nothing else, keeps asking, “Since the world is going to keep changing, what are the ideas that will drive that change in the best direction?”
Look at the TED logo — it is right there in the wording: “Ideas Worth Spreading.”
And out of these presentations, and the many conversations that such a conference and on-line resource sparks, (and, of course, the many other conferences and conversations from other sources), we think about the future differently. And so we ask, how can we do our job better? How can we continually innovate?
Somebody is asking that question right now — someone who is itching to put some other company out of business. Not because they are mean (though they may be); it is just that they want to build a profitable enterprise themselves. They want the customers, and if that means taking them from you, then so be it. And so somebody keeps looking for that next, better idea.
You’ll be smarter if you make that somebody “you.”
“You need an idea.”
The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.”
You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
Even though I look desperate, I don’t feel desperate, because I have a habitual routine to keep me going.
I call it scratching. You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won. That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward.
The unshakeable rule: you don’t have a really good idea until you combine two little ideas.
(Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit)
As I have often said, I believe this: “the more you know, the more you know.” The more you read, the more you hear, the more you experience, the deeper the reservoir of “stuff” that you have to draw from in any and every situation.
In the new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson, the author makes the case that good ideas come from such a reservoir within. I have already chosen this book as my selection for the December First Friday Book Synopsis, and now I have read this article on the Daily Beast about the author and his book: The Origin of Good Ideas by Joshua Robinson. Here are some excerpts:
Sparks of brilliance, Johnson argues, are actually more like slow burns that develop in places, such as universities, that are teeming with ideas. Even wrong ideas help. An expectant genius waiting for the muse to deliver a fully formed, humanity-advancing idea into his lap can be kept waiting for a long time. Things like evolutionary theory, the internet, and the printing press did not appear miraculously in a dream. Or on a piece of burnt toast.
“I didn’t want it to be a straight sort of business, self-help, management-type book—which I have no interest in writing,” he says. “I did want it to have a feeling where you read it and think, ‘Oh yeah, I could use that.’ When you succeed in writing an idea-book, it becomes this platform that other people get to build on, or take and put to new uses.”
On the final page of the book, he summarizes how the abstract patterns can be applied practically in everyday life to foster more creative, open environments. “Go for a walk,” he writes, “cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.”
All innovation comes from good ideas. So learning how to find good ideas is a pretty good challenge to tackle. And since innovation is one of the great needs in business, and society, I suspect this will be a fun and valuable book.
You can watch Steven Johnson’s Ted Talk, Where Good Ideas Come From, here.
Update: I’ve now watched the video, and can”t wait to read the book. He talks about the value of a “slow hunch,” he begins and ends with a great coffee house story, and his last line is: “Chance favors the connected mind.” The video is worth watching!