Keeping Your Innovative Edge
Few subjects have as many experts, authors, consultants and seminar offerings as “innovation.” It’s not surprising, as we have watched legacy companies disappear like dinosaurs, while innovation leaders like Apple have not only come back from the brink, but defied the odds to become one of the most valuable companies in the world. It is easy to forget that when Apple was teetering, Michael Dell was asked what he would do if he were in Steve Jobs’ position: “I’d shut it (the company) down, and give the money back to shareholders,” he said.
According to Forbes magazine, the average lifespan of a successful S&P 500 Company in the 1920s was 67 years, and today it is 15 years. This may explain why books like Dr. Jack V. Matson’s Innovate or Die have been quoted so frequently.
What Makes the Music Fade?
What is equally curious to me, however, is why individuals who are so innovative tend to lose that creative edge as they move through the continuum of life. Take Albert Einstein’s 1905 “Miracle Year,” Annus Mirabilis, when he produced his most groundbreaking work at just 26 years old. Ten years later at 36, he published his General Theory of Relativity. Though he is the greatest mind of the modern era, by his 40s the music had died.
Einstein was not unlike Bob Dylan, the muse of the Baby Boomer generation. His blend of blues, rock and ballad captured the era, but seemed to dry up after a short but prolific run. He commented on his songwriting prowess, stating, “They just came through me, it wasn’t like I was having to compose them. That doesn’t happen now; I just can’t write them that way anymore.” Though he added with a little smile, “but I still can sing them.”
There is plenty of ink spilt or blogs written on keeping your company innovative, but how do you keep yourself on the edge of innovation?
1. Stay Hungry, My Friend
Twenty-five-hundred years ago, Solomon said, “One who is full despises honey, but to one who is hungry, even bitter food tastes sweet.” Like the more modern maxim, “Nothing fails like success,” success can not only dull our hunger for what’s next and what can be, but it can inebriate us to the obvious fault lines in our approach or judgment. Without fresh goals and visions, even wise men like Solomon tend to drift into unproductive apathy or decadence.
2. Life’s a Missile, Not a Bullet
Expert snipers and marksmen measure wind speed, barometric pressure, range and ballistic factors before pulling the trigger, because you only have one chance to acquire your target, aim and fire. Guided missiles, on the other hand, make multiple course corrections every second as they move towards their target. To succeed in life, those daily calibrations are essential as well. What is more, though we may initially be off target, like the missile, we can acquire a new target or hone in on the same one and get back on target.
3. The Mother of Invention
Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, now known as 3M, had been a disappointing failure for many years. The company floundered in red ink for years, as their mining interests bled cash. Finally, the founders and investors realized they had to close the business or change direction. The 3M executives used the failure as an opportunity to find a way to succeed. Today, they generate $30 billion annually and employ roughly 84,000 people.
Necessity is the mother of invention and the ability to face the fact that what you’re doing ain’t working is what awakens that maternal instinct.