What Scope Are You Innovating At?

The startup world is hotter than ever, garnering more attention, capital, and talent each year. College students no longer aspire to get a high paying corporate job with an established company. They would rather join a startup, found a company, or create an entirely new market. You’ll get looks of admiration from peers not for accepting a partner position at a law firm, but for creating an “app” or having a project crowd funded on Kickstarter.

Its also easier than ever to start a company. Any idea, good or bad, has a chance to get off the ground as long as you have a do-it-yourself attitude and are savvy about the tools and technologies available to help you. There are incredible platforms that have leveled the playing field for entrepreneurs, solving the common problems of legal, funding, hiring, HR & Benefits management, office space (if you even need it), technology infrastructure, and marketing. None of these things are a given to go smoothly, you still get what you pay for, and if you are starting a company in any of these areas you may not want to use the existing player’s solution. Regardless, the toolbox is larger and more equipped than ever.

Going along with an amazing toolset is a social understanding and acceptance of startups. People are generally more aware of what it takes, more willing to try new products and services, and have increased exposure and channels to discover startups. Shows like Shark Tank even glorify the pitch & fund raising process and make it entertaining. “Growth Hacker” is a formal title now and literally its own discipline. This evolution of thought around career paths, consumerism, and maturing of tools has led to a huge influx of startups, not all of which are truly innovating at a scope that matters.

Innovation is happening all the time, in many places and companies, small and large, new and old. People tend to think if you are with a startup you are innovating on something really big and new, which is not always the case. Sometimes a startup is refining an existing product, or trying to simply perform an existing service more efficiently. Is that innovating? You could argue yes, and you’d be right.

The question really is “What scope are you innovating at?” A flight attendant that has come up with the funniest way to explain to you where the exits are may be innovating on message delivery. A writer deciding to bring more visuals into their novel may be innovating on style and feel for her industry, even though the general mechanism is not new. The general contractor starting to franchise his business nationally, which has traditionally been local could be innovating on how to scale this type of company. The hedge fund manager that figures out the most brilliant algorithm for investing may be innovating on risk taking. The NBA star who has a new move no one can defend may be innovating to his peers, but to everyone else it just looks like a cool fading jumpshot. Bob from accounting may not even realize he was innovating when he had his fantasy football team share stats and pool funds with two other departments, but the Silicon Valley VC sees a social network.

On the flip side, startups specifically catalyzing themselves around innovation in a certain area may really not be doing anything new or exciting that is useful to society. There is a fine line between doing something new of value and executing on a negligible half-baked idea. Some startups are simply innovating at such a small or refined scale its not solving any real problem. There are also some startups that are trying to innovate at too large a scale, where they do not understand the market constraints, the funding and scale required before the value inflection point, or the skill sets necessary to achieve their goals. You are not “disrupting the world” with your TODO list app that is also a photo sharing app, perhaps just innovating for a niche market.

I have found that the good ones will always find a way to innovate, regardless of the circumstances. They may be forced to innovate on a smaller scale than they would want to, but those efforts are always beneficial. They give you perspective of the scope you are operating at, which is the best way to build towards innovating at much larger scopes.

Consider yourself a squirrel, and at the beginning of your career you are on the ground level, scurrying around looking for acorns without much visibility. You decide to start climbing a tree (take your first job), and climb up the trunk and pick a branch to focus on. As you move along the branch you eventually get to the top and feel you’ve gotten the full perspective this branch can give you, so you jump to another branch. Your new branch also has lots of opportunities, learnings, and challenges, but you eventually reach the top of that branch too. You go through this climbing exercise until you have reached the top of the tree. Now, all of the sudden, you can see the other trees and realize how high some of them are. You appreciate them because you’ve been through your tree and have an understanding of what it takes to climb trees like that. As you move to new trees, and even to a different forest (industry), you leverage all your past experiences to build a perspective of this new area and how it can be innovated in.

Perspective is the number one way you can understand what scope you are CURRENTLY innovating at, and what scope you COULD BE innovating at. Your perspective is an unconscious merging of all your past experiences, skill sets, innovations, and encounters. It’s an invaluable asset when building new products and services. It’s something that can’t be given to you, can’t be taken away, and at least for now, something a machine can’t do at all. You have to earn your perspective. It’s the reason a good UX product manager wants to personally watch their users interact with the product or service, not have them fill out surveys. They are leveraging their unique perspective to identify details you wouldn’t consider important, correlate in-context and out-of-context patterns that they can’t verbalize cleanly. So zoom in and out a little, leverage your perspective and climb a little higher if you want to innovate at a larger scope.

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