Creativity and innovation: Edison was right

Creative genius comes from 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Thomas Edison

This is a first post of a series of four. The original French version can be found on the Techno Marketing Blog.

Innovation has become a fetish word for entrepreneurs and even more so for venture capitalists. Not surprising when you know that all of the unicorns and large companies who dominate their segments have marketed at least one innovation in the last years.

Disruptive innovation, the one that leads to unicorn city, is born from the creativity of the founders and employees.

Can a company expect that all of its employees be creative and capable of innovation? The answer, according to Kevin Ashton, one of the fathers of RFID and author of How to Fly a Horse, is a resounding yes.

Ashton examined the results of multiple sociological and psychological experiments as well as studied many examples of innovation taken throughout modern history. All the data points undeniably point towards one conclusion.

Innovation requires an initial idea but more importantly it is the result of hard work.

An innovation is most often a tangible product or service that comes from one or more ideas. Initial ideas, which resulted in breakthrough innovations, were not all good. In fact, the initial ideas from which stemmed some of the most important innovations were mediocre at best.

Two examples of great innovators

The first drawings of the Wright’s brothers flying machine would never have lifted off from the ground. Their first prototype, resulting from many previous failed attempts which required colossal amounts of work, were unstable and dangerous in the air. This instability issue almost ended their project. Until one of the brothers returned to the basics of flight. He observed birds flying and figured out how to stabilise his aircraft. Even then, it took multiple unsuccessful tries before Orville and Wilbur finally produced a prototype that was stable and safe.

In recent times, Elon Musk, famous for his work with electrical cars, did not have an easy time, to say the least, getting the Tesla on the market.
The project, which is still in progress, was packed with difficulties and the roads travelled by Musk brutal. The adversity he faced was so great that he even thought, at one point, of ending his life.

Main characteristics of great creators

What sets innovators apart from people who get creative ideas is their perseverance and open mindedness.
The perseverance to work tirelessly to improve on their initial idea, perseverance when faced with financial, technical, personal difficulties, criticism and even foul play, is what distinguishes great innovators from everyone else.

The second characteristic of great innovators is their open mind.
Despite the fact that the Wright brothers and Elon Musk had unshakable faith in their project, they didn’t dwell on their unsuccessful ideas. These men, which didn’t/don’t have the reputation for being easy bosses, are known for welcoming challenges to their idea when shown empirical data.

When such data shows them that their idea is wrong, these great innovators learn quickly from mistakes and pivot towards another avenue rapidly. Having their project go forward was/is more important to them then being right.

Passionate, disciplined, open minded entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs who work hard on their projects remain the greatest innovators.

Three lessons for companies

Companies of all sizes who wish to increase their innovation rate can learn many lessons from Ashton’s conclusions. Here are 3:

  1. Encourage perseverance and hard work on a project more aggressively than generating a multitude of ideas.
  2. Practice patience and tolerance to errors.
    Leave sufficient time for employees to develop their ideas, even the bad ones. As long as they can demonstrate empirically that their project is progressing in the right direction.
  3. Create an environment where facts and empirical data based criticism (vs. free criticism) is not only accepted but encouraged.

Leaders and managers who would like to apply these lessons will find all the necessary elements to create an innovation-friendly culture in the Lean Startup methodology.

The following post of this series, based on Kevin Ashton’s book, will deal with the mechanisms linked to inspiration and creativity.