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Creativity is overrated: innovation is a journey, not an event

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying creativity isn’t essential for innovation, but finding creative solutions is only the start of the race, and it’s not that hard. But picking a winner and seeing them across the finish line to deliver real enterprise value — that’s difficult.

We’re told this is the era of creatives, that creatives will solve our problems and that the future survival of humans depends on innovation. And we’re constantly offered the latest elixir event by a new creativity guru guaranteed to produce a brilliant solution to our problems.

But once the fun creativity event is over, we find ourselves surrounded by a sea of unknowns and the realisation that ideas with the most promise, have the highest risk. If the future of your enterprise depends on a winning solution you need to get it right.

We could reduce global warming by putting thousands of mirrors in orbit to reflect sunlight away, but is this a solution we should back? Should we invest in new supercapacitors and why?

Here are five tips for turning your creative output into winning innovation.

1. Get more (strategic) knowledge

The sharp end of innovation is at the bleeding edge of knowledge so it’s normal to be surrounded by unknowns when you’re pushing boundaries hard.

Research is essential, but innovation is a journey, not an event. Early on you don’t need all the answers, you just need enough to choose a direction.

Being strategic about how you address unknowns means identifying the strengths and weaknesses of any idea, and focusing on the fundamental questions whose answers will drive you in one direction or another.

Research doesn’t mean completing a slow university style program — as a startup you need to be a ninja, not an army general.

Most technical solutions are about controlling or manipulating the physical world — whether that’s a building, a new plane, detecting a virus or understanding user experience. You should do enough research to understand the science behind your problem, and its solution space, to assess the situation and take calculated risks.

Whenever you can, test your ideas in the real world. Reality is a brutal taskmaster that will quickly eliminate unworkable ideas without mercy or pity.

When you’re making choices, use evidence, not hunches, and watch out for the emotionally invested champion on your team who can’t change horses without feeling personally let down.

2. Back multiple ideas

Think like an investor, not a gambler.

When NASA wanted a moon lander they asked for multiple proposals then selected three to take to the next stage. It helps to have a lot of resources to throw at ideas in parallel, but this strategy can be followed at any level.

Sometimes you need to take a few solutions further on the journey before settling on one that meets your business needs.

Evaluate risk and reward so you can hedge your bets by pursuing a portfolio of ideas.

In my 30 years developing new technology products for global markets, I have found that large corporations fail to innovate because their internal systems are biased to avoid risk — whether that’s risk to their quarterly profit target, the career of the decision maker, or some other short-term factor.

By comparison, as a startup you have nothing to lose. Your ability to take calculated risks is a huge strategic advantage that you should strongly leverage.

Be prepared to change — there’s no use flogging a dead horse. While there’s always a chance you might find yourself unseated on the ideas racetrack, sometimes a change that gives you the opportunity to succeed, is preferable to continuing with a high risk of failure.

3. Get a form guide

Graeme Clarke invented the bionic ear despite technical barriers, scarce funds and skepticism. Looking at how others have made the innovation journey, and in particular how they overcame barriers or failure, can help you choose your own direction.

Distil the learning down to insights, proven methods and guiding principles.

Great products result from making the right trade-off decisions between competing needs - the yin and yang of the creative process.

The Concorde was shaped to break the sound barrier, but meeting that constraint resulted in a machine of outstanding natural beauty. Seek elegance, beauty, symmetry and simplicity because technical solutions that fit the natural world like a glove are more likely to succeed.

While straightforward to implement, putting mirrors into orbit as a solution to climate change doesn’t address the problem at its source. While the causes of climate change persist, orbiting mirrors will only ever be a short-term, clunky, band-aid solution.

Avoid solutions that don’t scale easily because, even if they succeed, it may be difficult to build a business on those ideas.

Consider getting help from someone who’s already battled problems and succeeded. There’s no substitute for the experience and wisdom of someone who bears the scars from their time in the innovation trenches.

4. Don’t count on luck but exploit the opportunity

Good luck is rare. Taking longer, being harder and costing more is normal.

While you shouldn’t count on luck, serendipity happens to those who plan and provide time for the unexpected.

There’s a military saying that ‘plans never survive contact with the enemy’, but keeping a strategic reserve to exploit unexpected opportunity often leads to success.

Since you already know your best-laid plans may fail, make sure you have contingency plans, and don’t expect to be right every time. Keeping a few good ideas in my back pocket while having my team work on a single solution has worked very well for me in uncertain times.

When your investors ask “what happens if this fails?”, you can pull the ideas out of your pocket, give them a lick and polish, and show them your contingency plans without investing precious resources until it’s necessary.

5. Invest in a great jockey (team)

Recognise it’s your team, not you, that will deliver breakthrough innovation. So assemble a team that has the experience, persistence and motivation to take your ideas on the hard road to success.

The search for significance is deeply ingrained in the human experience, so the prize of being first to bring an idea across the finish line is highly motivating to most creatives.

Power charge your innovation by engaging your team in the strategy, process and contingency plans.

Your team is best placed to see the interconnectedness of ideas and motivated to identify that unexpected opportunity. Let them incubate ideas so they’re working for you when thinking in the shower, relaxing on the weekend, or tenaciously working all night to achieve success.

Just as American football teams have different sides for offence and defence, you might need different thinking and different skills at different stages of the race. Your highly creative staff are not the people to make sure the manufacturing minutiae are correct, but they are equally necessary for success.

While creativity may start the race, it’s always persistence and perseverance that cross the finish line to create real customer and enterprise value.

Ian Reilly (author) is the founder of agtech startup Agersens and consulting company Altrutec. The copyright of this article belongs to the Authur.

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