What Innovators Can Learn From Polynesian Navigators

How to stay the course in the face of uncertainty

Jan Milz
3 min readSep 8, 2016
Lost on sea? Never as a Polynesian Navigator!

Thousands of years ago, small groups of Polynesians set out on small canoes for destinations unknown, possibly never to return. They left behind loved ones and the safety of land in pursuit of the near impossible: Finding uncharted islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Sailing thousands of miles without any reliable navigational aids like compass or maps required skill and strategy: Polynesian navigators observed things such as a change in wind direction, color of the skies, wave intervals, and behavior of birds to tell them which direction to sail. They did not set a fixed goal instead they just pretended a first goal to get started. On the way they changed direction all the times. If things got too rough, they even would turn and head back to the safety of land. Polynesians never saw any negative in this flexibility (in today’s world this would be thought of as a failure) — instead they were able to develop a strong inner centering, which was needed to succeed in such an unpredictable and uncertain context.

Innovation processes are also very uncertain. You cannot write down the unknown. Trying to set a goal upfront and make plans for the future makes no sense — this can even hinder invention or discovery.

If Columbus would have worked in a modern-day company his discovery of America would have been seen as a failure — he didn’t reach the set goal.

The following principles learned from the ancient Polynesian navigators may help the innovator of today:

Innovation is a journey into the unknown. That’s why we need a different view on things for this type of challenge.

The purpose of a goal is not to reach it — it’s to get started

If you don’t get started, you’ll get nowhere. Take action instead of meticulously planning every detail. As you go, create milestones and goals. Take pride when you reach a milestone or accomplish something — it doesn’t matter how big or small it is, it’s worth celebrating.

Be flexible and don’t be afraid to change direction

Continuously monitor your current situation. If you are busy rearranging deck furniture and your ship is sinking, you better take a good look around and make a decision on whether or not you should stay or get in a lifeboat. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Failure is a crucial part of the process

Failure is part of the process. Fail as early and as cheap or economical as possible. The faster you fail the sooner you will get to experience success.

Search for the unpredictable and be open to results

Be attracted by an indefinite future. Create the future instead of try to predict it. Only upon arrival will it become clear what you were looking for. That’s how you discover new islands in an ocean of ​​possibilities.

Embrace uncertainty and serendipity

Don’t fear uncertainty und insecurity — welcome those feelings and be able to stumble upon discoveries like the three princes of serendip. There are plenty of examples for discoveries that happened by accident or pure luck!

Never get lost and stay confident

Establish trust, confidence — and promise yourself and others that you will return. Confidence is the most needed attribute and it grows with time and experience. Stay confident and you will never truly be lost.

When do you start?

Polynesian canoe on a journey into the unknown

Jan is an entrepreneur and product guy living with his family in Hamburg, Germany. As a consultant he helps with lean product management and product discovery. He is looking forward to connecting.

Polynesia — from the Greek for “many islands” — is a collection of over 1,000 islands strewn over a broad region of the Pacific Ocean known as the Polynesian triangle.