How To Become An Innovation Guru In Five Easy Steps — An Irreverent Guide

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A Note for the Reader: There’s just the tiniest chance that the text below is written tongue firmly in cheek. I say that, as the outlet that I wrote it for (to promote my book Innovation for the Fatigued) declined to publish it, as they feared a) it might be taken seriously, b) that people lack a sense of humor. Not sure if they’re right, but here we are…

So you want to become an innovation guru? That’s OK, I understand. There’s a lot to like about being one. The well-paid consulting. The adoring crowds. The sense of being ahead of the curve, and above mere mortals. The assumption that it might help you on the dating scene… Well, let me tell you, today is your lucky day! I’m here, as a bona fide specialist, to teach you how to be an innovation guru. If you want to become one, this is self-evidently helpful, but it might also help those who wish to hire such people. The truth of the matter is, there is no association that confers the title upon you. Anyone can portray themselves as an innovation guru, and quite a few do. So there’s no stopping you if you want to be one!

Now, let me tell you, I know innovation gurus. I know many of them well. I know their books, and I know their tricks. I, myself, have been called one. It irked me, but here we are. The thing is, this has also taught me to look behind the curtain. There is an innovation industry, and the innovation guru is a crucial cog in that machine. If you’d like to be one too, here’s a few things to keep in mind. So, without further ado, five easy steps to become an innovation guru.

This is the most important step of all, and it is easy to fail straight out of the gate. People who do not know the innovation business think that in order to succeed in it, you need to be an original thinker. As few people are, they shy away from innovation gurudom. The fools! The fact of the matter is that contemporary innovation thinking has no connection at all with originality. In fact, originality is a hindrance! What you need to do to impress people with your innovation knowledge is to learn to be shamelessly unoriginal. You need to praise the same people everyone else is praising — it used to be Steve Jobs, now it’s Elon Musk. You need to keep repeating the same old cases. Apple is always good, as it Google. Any company that’s been on the front cover of Fast Company (the crib sheet of every wannabe innovation guru out there) is good to go. You can’t go wrong with Airbnb, particularly if you compare it with something that has literally nothing to do with hospitality. Or Airbnb. The less original you can make it, i.e. the more similar to what everyone else is saying, the greater are your chances to be picked for the next unoriginality festiva… I mean, innovation conference.

Once you’ve learnt to be unoriginal, the next step is to keep repeating yourself. You really need to hammer home the points you’ve copied! So keep telling people, with more and more emphasis, that They. Need. To. Get. Ideas. From. Outside. Also, you need to keep reminding people that They. Need. To. Take. Risks. And. Experiment. Extra points can be had from repeating this in the same sentence. If in doubt, just repeat the same work over and over (also known as the Tom Peters-gambit): “Experiment, experiment, experiment!”. If possible rewrite the same book twice, thrice, and whatever the word for four times over is. Hey, everyone is doing it! Do not shy away from going back and repeating how the experiences of an unrelated company to the one you’re advising is the way to go. Heck, people have been getting away with suggesting that doing what Apple does is a universal tonic for about two decades by now! Oh, and if in doubt, refer people back to your book. Again, and again, and again…

As you go about saying unoriginal things many times over, do remember who it is you’re talking to. Executives. Top executives. No point in talking to the plebs, they’re not paying for your next keynote! In fact, the unwashed masses will only ask stupid questions. Questions such as: “But how does this affect me?” or “I can barely find time for a bathroom break, when am I supposed to be ‘disrupting’ things?”. Remember, their pedestrian worries shouldn’t affect you in the least. You’re thinking big picture, and someone else will take care of the niggling details. You’re disrupting transformation and transforming disruption, surely someone else can deal with the more mundane stuff? So always act as if practicalities are beneath you. You’re here to give visionary guidance, and if people don’t get that, they’re not “part of the solution”. Ignore such people.

You can’t be a guru if you can’t promise salvation. And the way to promise salvation is to state that you’ve delivered it before. Remember, if you once gave a speech to a group at a company that consequently did well, who’s to say that this success wasn’t all your doing? If you’ve met a CEO at an event, you’ve basically consulted for them. If you’ve met them twice, you’re a trusted advisor. If you met them three times, and they remember your name, you’ve basically been their executive coach since they were in college. Also, namedrop like your life depends on it. A proper innovation guru can barely leave their bedroom without a Fortune 500 company getting in touch. You once sat in on a meeting at which a project was discussed? Congratulations, you just became a founding partner in said project. Just remember what they say about lies — the more outrageous it is, the more likely people are to believe it. My good friend Kanye West taught me that.

Only common people focus on the actual work of innovation. As a guru, you need to transcend such banalities. The hard work and the long nights make for good fodder for after-dinner speeches, but you don’t really want to be there for them. That’s what the little people are for. You’re an innovation guru, so you should be focused on what matters — the release party, and the hogging of the glory. That’s why a proper innovation guru only focuses on things that have succeeded, and leaves failed or struggling projects to others. Also, remember that not all innovation is created equal. Sure, an obscure innovation in industrial processes may cut emissions or save on raw materials, but who cares? You’re here for digitalization and sexy consumer goods. Sure, you might refer to a social innovation just to let people know you’re a great human being, but the real sizzle is in things such as new phones and exciting cars. In journalism, they say “if it bleeds it leads”. For an innovation guru, “if there’s bling it’s going in”.

So there you have it, five easy steps to become an innovation guru. With these as your guidelines, you could be headlining an innovation conference in no time at all! Just keep plugging away with unoriginal, repeated, aloof things, with your braggadocio focused on the shiny stuff. Trust me, it’s worked for many, many innovation gurus.

Oh, and if you find the theses above abhorrent, cynical, and vile, I cannot but agree with you. Still, this is what innovation has become. I should know, for I live in this world. If you’d like an antidote to all this, and are more interested in making innovation meaningful than in becoming a guru, you might like to look at my new book Innovation for the Fatigued. It details the problems with the innovation industry and its attendant gurus, and argues for a new take on innovation — one where innovation critique beats false gurus.

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Professor of management, speaker, writer, and popular culture geek. For more, see

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