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7 Innovation Myths

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In The Power of Why Amanda Lang argues that innovation is simpler than you think.

Myth #1 Innovation is about the newest thing.

Sometimes a great innovation is indeed a “step-change”: the motorized vehicle that displaces the horse and buggy. But most innovation is incremental. From my own favourite, life-improving innovation-the curved shower rod—to just about any product or service you can name, little improvements and developments are being introduced all the time. …

Myth #2 Innovation is a solo activity

Consistent with our tendency to think of innovation solely in terms of mind-blowing new inventions, we often think of innovators as geniuses, oddballs with wild ideas and wilder hair. People who occupy the far end of the innovation spectrum were probably less easily tamed by our school systems and may therefore be less comfortable in corporate environments. But even mavericks and mad scientist types need other people to implement the innovations they’ve dreamed up, and usually, those other people wind up incrementally improving their inventions in some way. …

Myth #3 Innovation can’t be taught

Every day, people like Colonel Rolf Smith teach organizations, businesses and individuals how to get in touch with their inner innovator. But teaching innovative thinking isn’t like teaching Math or French—it’s more a matter of teaching people how to harness their existing natural curiosity in order to unleash their innate capacity for innovation.

Myth #4 Innovation is top-down

Remember the flocking theory? Flying in formation, birds on the periphery—where the risks are, and where you can see more—send messages and warning signals to bring flying in the centre, where it’s more protected and safer. Similarly, in a fast-food restaurant, the clerk at the counter cottons on long before anyone at head office does that the new trays are flimsy and hard to stack. In a hospital, the nurses may resist washing their hands unless there’s a way to communicate both up and down the food chain that the problem is the harsh cleanser they’re made to use. Smart companies like Four Seasons and Whole Foods explicitly recognize that the closer an employee is to the end-user, the more likely he or she is to have concrete ideas about how to innovate—and the more important it is for the higher-ups to listen.

Myth #5 You can’t force innovation

It’s very true that you can’t tell others to start innovating pronto, and expect much good to come of it. But you can create an environment that encourages and rewards curiosity and therefore promotes engagement and innovation.

Myth #6 Change is always good

Tell that to the product team that dreamed up New Coke. The funny thing about that epic failure was that the beverage itself actually tested well—people liked the stuff. What didn’t fly was the implication that there was something wrong with Old Coke. … The sheer math on ideas suggests that about half of them will be lousy. But that’s not catastrophic unless the lesson taken is that there’s no point in continuing to dream up anything new, and it’s safer to stick with what’s always worked in the past.

Myth #7 Innovation isn’t for everyone

Let’s put this one to rest forever. Remember how kids in developing countries respond to the Soccket? When they see the ball, they almost immediately start asking questions and dreaming up their own innovations. Innovative thinking is contagious. It’s a bug that anyone can catch.

Since our ancestors first stood upright, humans beings have been innovating: more and better tools, different and improved circumstances, more effective and efficient ways of doing things. It’s pretty silly to think we’ve suddenly all lost that basic drive now that we’ve hit the twenty-first century. If anything, our capacity to innovate is now exponentially greater because of our unprecedented ability to share information and ideas, which also makes it much easier to take something from one field and apply it to another.

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