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Innovators Hunt for Problems, Not Ideas

And other lessons from legendary creators

Greg Satell
Oct 13, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo: Martin Barraud/OJO Images/Getty Images

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I’ve never really liked the phrase “innovate or die.” Why not “finance or die” or “sell or die” or even “manage or die”? Clearly every business function is essential and no organization can survive without building some competency in all of them. In an ultra-competitive business environment, you have to do more than just show up.

What makes great innovators different is that they succeed where most others fail. They not only come up with new ideas, they find ways to make them work and create value for the rest of us. Even more importantly, they are able to do it consistently, year after year, decade after decade.

Over the years, I’ve gotten to know many of these extraordinary people and they are all impressive in their own way, but what struck me is not their differences, but what they have in common. It seems there are some things that all great innovators share and, importantly, they are all things we can do as well. So there is hope for the rest of us.

1. They Seek Out Problems, Not Ideas

Elance launched as a startup in 1999 to do for freelancers what Monster.com did for full-time positions—create a marketplace to match employers with talent that had the skills they were looking for. It seemed like a great idea, but it turned out to be a bust and the company soon shifted to developing vendor management software, where it had better success.

The company sold its software business in 2006 and decided to return to the original idea, but focused on a different problem. Instead of merely making matches, it designed algorithms to make engagement more successful. This time it began to gain traction and soon saw its business grow.

Passion can make all the difference.

The team also began to see more problems it could solve. Freelancers needed to update their skills, so it added training and certification programs. Employers needed to track freelancers internally, so it created private talent clouds. Every new problem it identified led to a solution and more value created. Elance merged with rival oDesk in 2014 to form Upwork, and continues to thrive.

Every great innovator I’ve met has a similar story. Most didn’t have a lot of ideas, and the ones they did come up with weren’t necessarily any better than anybody else’s ideas. What they did have was a passion for solving problems. Some spent years, or even decades, trying to solve a single grand challenge. That passion can make all the difference.

2. They Don’t Shout “Eureka!”

Another thing I noticed was that when innovators described their moment of discovery, they didn’t recall any overwhelming excitement. No high-fives. No shouting from the rooftops. No alerting of the media. Nothing like that.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure they felt excited, but other thoughts were dominant. Did they get it right? What could they do to validate their findings? Were their other explanations for the data they were seeing? How could they apply these new insights to a bigger problem?

When Jim Allison, who developed cancer immunotherapy, described his discovery, he said he “slowly started to put the pieces together.” He didn’t seem to feel brilliant. In fact, he seemed to feel a bit foolish for not noticing where the data was so clearly leading him. It suffices to say nobody else saw it either until Allison pointed it out. In fact, for three years he had to pound the pavement to get anyone to invest in his idea. But he saw that as just another problem to be solved, and through sheer will and perseverance, he prevailed. Untold thousands are alive today because he did.

3. They Are Active Collaborators

Bernie Meyerson is the chief innovation officer at IBM, and he’s not only a brilliant scientist in his own right, his position puts him at the nexus of much of the advanced work being done in a number of fields. If something important is going on, chances are he knows about it.

In the foreword to my book Mapping Innovation, he recounted how he developed the silicon-germanium chips that make Wi-Fi internet connections possible. He explained how at each stage of the development process, they needed to widen the circle to bring in new people with the expertise to take the invention to the next level.

The “lone genius” is a myth. No one ever truly creates the future by themselves.

Innovation is never a singular event; it’s a process of discovery, engineering, and transformation—and those three things almost never happen in the same place. Creating anything that’s truly new and important usually involves a series of handoffs. The ability to create and manage those handoffs will, to a large extent, determine the ability to innovate.

When it comes to innovation, collaboration is a key competitive advantage. The “lone genius” is a myth. No one ever truly creates the future by themselves.

4. Everyone Can Innovate (Which Means You Can Too)

G.H. Hardy was undoubtedly one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century, but he considered his greatest discovery not a theory, but a person: Srinivasa Ramanujan, the self-taught Indian mathematics prodigy. Ramanujan had sent his theories to three English mathematicians, but it was Hardy—and only Hardy—who was able to see the breathtaking genius beneath the almost indecipherable scrawl.

That’s not to say that Hardy was the only one capable of recognizing Ramanujan’s genius, but he was the only one who took the time to look closely at the humble correspondence of an amateur mathematician. It was his passion, rather than any innate ability, that led him to greatness. In his memoir, Hardy wrote:

The case for my life, then, or for that of anyone else who has been a mathematician in the same sense, which I have been one, is this: that I have added something to knowledge and helped others to add more; and these somethings have a value that differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or of any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.

Seeking out problems to solve, rigorously checking facts, and actively collaborating with others who can drive an idea forward are all things that anyone can do—but most don’t. It is those things that set great innovators apart.

What makes the difference is not brilliance or even hard work. Lots of brilliant people work hard and achieve little. It is the passion to contribute something, to add not only knowledge but to the collective well being, that sets great innovators apart.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com. It was also published at www.digitaltonto.com.

Written by

Bestselling Author of Cascades and Mapping Innovation, @HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com — note: I use Amazon Affiliate links for books.

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