DISCLAIMER: This is a fairly long post, but hope you agree it's worth the read
It is important when considering what it takes to be innovative, to take a look at those who have been notable innovators in the past, as a means to gain context of how you can add to the pages of the history of your company, and perhaps the world. No one is born with the title “innovator” and that each person who wants it must work to achieve it in their own way. Rich or poor, blind or deaf, tough or soft, there is not anything that makes all innovators the same. Yet, each had a common desire to push on the glass ceiling and created room for the world to grow. These are not the greatest in history or put in any particular order.
These names were chosen because they all contributed to something different and did it in a variety of ways. There are names missing from this list, but it is impossible to build all-time greatest hits with something this subjective, so I looked for different traits outside of just “the best ever”. Whether you agree they are a legend or not you can’t deny they made an impact, and it is worth understanding how their contribution can help you in yours.
Peter Drucker – Systems Thinking
Peter Drucker was a management consultant, an educator, and an author who contributed a great deal to the modern business corporation. Throughout his life, he invented a number of concepts and wrote several books that are considered foundational in management theory and practice. Yet, when told he was a guru he once replied, “I have been saying for many years that we are using the word ‘guru’ because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline”. His insights were often applied with lessons from history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, culture and religion. He focused on relationships between people and did not bother as much with the math. He wrote much about interpersonal relationships in organizations rather than focusing too much on the metrics-driven side of the business. He had a passion for learning, writing, and teaching which led to accomplishments such as winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, and 7 McKinsey awards, along with receiving several honorary doctorates in various countries. Peter Drucker was a smart man, but more importantly he worked to make unique contributions in his field and did the hard work to develop concepts and theories that others could use.
He put his intelligence to good work and changed the world of management theory as a result. There are a lot of intelligent people that taught at schools during the same period of time that did not have nearly the affect. His greatness was not just in that he was intelligent, but that he had the insight to build a system and set of theories around what he was spending his time researching. There are many people that would have enjoyed sitting down and spending time talking with him about management theory. There were a number of ways he could have spent his time rather than writing books and papers on his research, however you do not get a medal from the President of the United States for having great conversations or taking up a number of hobbies. Good ideas need a place to go. Developing systems thinking means you are building models for thoughts and creating frameworks for all those great ideas to fit into so they can be replicated and shared with others.
This can also turn into a concept and series of innovations as they continue to develop. Every good idea needs a place to go. When you find yourself not able to bridge from common sense in the field you are in to ground breaking stuff, studying unrelated fields to gain additional context, as well as working with those that are not as deep in the weeds, can often help add insight as well as getting a knack for building systems which can lead to concepts. This in turn leads to innovative ideas and more pronounced impacts. Do the research, test the theory and build the concept, but make sure it lands in a form that others can receive value from and do something with it. In Peter Drucker’s case, the product was his insight and theories. Whether it is written down, built, or delivered in the form of a service – innovation can look many different ways, but should always provide greater benefit to the people around you and will be noted as such if it proves useful.
Thomas Alva Edison – Persistence
Regardless of what kind of person you think Thomas Edison was there is one thing he can go down in history as, and that is he was persistent. Making the several hundred attempts at getting the light bulb working, or building all the components necessary to make DC viable for people, moving this many concepts forward was not easy for him, or the grad students that helped contribute to his many patents. With each of the ideas he worked on to develop it required a long period of time to get from the concept to the invention, but he recognized when he was onto something and would work persistently to get there. All one has to do is look through several of his famous quotes to get a sense of how he felt about giving up:
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
“I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up”.
Thomas Edison was a man that was willing to try things multiple times until it worked, and he pushed others around him to do the same. Often you will fail the first time out of the gate getting traction with your concept, so it is important to be persistent and make adjustments each time until it works. Perhaps the initial concept you had was bad, and the idea is determined to be a failure. You are most likely still to stumble onto something great, so refine what you need and keep working on it till you strike gold.
Nicola Tesla – Underdog
Nicola Tesla was not popular and there was more than enough negative press about him from competitors, much like the aforementioned Thomas Edison. Yet he had brilliant ideas and knew it. He kept at his research even when everyone else turned against him. Things did not end well for him, he was a true underdog and his ideas have gone on to influence modern day electricity technologies both large and small. People may not always understand your concepts, and it may even turn into a negative experience for you, but being the underdog does not mean they are bad ideas. Sometimes the most impactful ideas will run into the steepest resistance, so hold your ground and do your best to weather the storm because if the idea is truly disruptive then someday it will find a home.
Henry Ford – More with less
Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, but he did develop the assembly line and that let middle class Americans afford cars due to his innovations in the mass production space. His genius was in taking something expensive and out of reach to the average citizen, and bring it down to a level that more people could afford. Things that are rare, hard to come by, or overpriced are ripe for someone to come along and reduce the cost so more people can afford them. Luxury means scarcity, and in many cases there are barriers keeping it from the everyman that you could potentially tackle. Is the watch made with rare materials in the machinery? Try using different materials to build the same clock movements, so the same quality can be afforded by more people. Are certain functions of a luxury car not offered on mid-priced brands? Build an after-market version of the same thing and find a distributor to make it available to more people. There are some things you will not be able to manufacture yourself, such as gold (unless you know a good alchemy recipe). However, a great way to start thinking about innovative concepts is reducing scarcity and creating more of something there is not enough of. Whether it is creating a new way to make less expensive cars or finding new methods to make high end watches cheaper.
Wright Brothers – Partnership
When one thinks of the invention of the airplane, it is hard to differentiate where one brother contributed more or less than the other because the brothers took credit for inventing it together. Whether it was Wilber who engineered more of the three-axis control that enabled the pilot to keep the plane in the air or Orville, the two went down in history as doing it together. Other great partnerships have existed in history such as Hewlett & Packard or Ben & Jerry. In these partnerships, to bring a concept the partners were both passionate about bringing something better to life. You do not always have to do it alone and sharing the credit does not mean fading into the backlogs of corporate history. Sometimes great ideas can be magnified, by seeking out like-minded people and collaborating to bring the concept to life rather than trying to go it alone.
Benjamin Franklin – Multifaceted
Benjamin Franklin was a man of many inventions in various fields, from the Franklin Stove to inventing the bifocals. In each field he ventured into, he was a newcomer but kept his focus. He had a naturally inquisitive personality that allowed him to explore a number of different fields and make a successful concept or business out of each. There is a benefit to being a specialist in one area, such as Benjamin Franklin being a printer; it does not mean you are bound to that one area. Having a variety of educational pursuits can lead to creative ideas in areas you may be completely new to. Often when someone focuses too hard on one thing, they can miss the obvious things that a set of new point of view might bring to light. You will be surprised what may end up being the significant contribution you make. Benjamin Franklin was not known for the profession he held for a number of years or the area he knew most about, but rather his contributions in the founding of the United States of America and his experiments with electricity are more closely associated with his place in history. Step outside of the area you know best and you may be surprised what you come up with.
Fred Smith – Observation
Fred Smith, the CEO and founder of FedEx, built his system based on the time he spent in Viet Nam during his tour in the military, where he learned how logistics played a big factor. He developed a business idea to create a shipment version of a bank clearing house for a new type of integrated air-ground system which had not existed prior to FedEx. In combining the experiences he had and observing systems that worked in unrelated fields he was able to transform the face of shipping packages around the world. Whether it is systems in nature, or methods for doing business in the non-profit sector, the greatest business ideas might not always live in the business world. Pulling new concepts from unrelated places can often be the greatest method for innovation, and much easier than trying to invent something completely from scratch. There are so many great things already happening in the world that you can leverage for moving your concept into a viable success.
Ray Kroc – Taking something and improving it
Ray Kroc, upon purchasing McDonald’s in 1961, took an existing company and incorporated changes that have made it the most successful fast food operation in the world. He noticed a number of things wrong with the way McDonald’s was being run after he first met the McDonald’s brothers and incorporated a number of changes such as standardizing operations which ensured that every burger a store made tasted the same regardless of which store it was prepared in. Although Ray Kroc did not invent McDonald’s or found the company, he saw something with a lot of potential and improved it to pave the way for McDonald’s to be the company that it is today. This did not happen early on in his life, but rather success occurred for Ray when he was well past his 50th birthday. Sometimes the innovative idea you are looking for is taking something that is already out there and improving it beyond simply sustaining what is there and pushing the 10% that is different out to the public. Ray did not just improve the one McDonald’s store that existed at the time, but created a new experience from the top down and changed the face of the industry for every chain since. Look at what is in place today in the company you work for, as well as companies you come into contact with every day, and think about how you might improve them if you ran the place. Those ideas just may be the start of your innovative idea.
Andrew Carnegie – Simple beginnings
You do not necessarily have to start big to do big things. Andrew Carnegie’s family had to borrow money to migrate to the US, and his first job was at the age of thirteen working as a bobbin boy, twelve hours a day, six days a week. He later went into the steel industry and leveraged two inventions he helped develop to grow the largest steel company in the US at the time. Hard work and a little ingenuity mean you will be prepared when opportunity strikes. Waiting for greatness to happen versus putting in the time to excelling at what it is you do today while keeping your eyes open for the right opportunity can get you much further than doing just what is expected and waiting for something to come to you. Few people, if any, are given opportunity to succeed without doing something to have gotten them there.
George Washington – Courage
The first President of the United States does not show up on many lists of innovators. It is no small feat of ingenuity to help create a nation, lead an army of rebels against one of the largest militaries in the world, and then go on to direct the constitutional congress followed by becoming the first President of the United States of America. Success was not a slam dunk, and committing treason for a belief in something bigger than himself meant having the courage of conviction and a belief system that not only propelled George Washington to turn his back on his country to form a new one, but helped him lead others to battle against a military he spent most of his natural life fighting for.
There is no doubt George Washington was a smart and talented man, but sometimes it takes real courage to push past all the other obstacles that brains and abilities alone will not help you conquer. You have a concept and a conviction that your ideas will help drive change, not just in the company you work for, but the entire industry and potentially the world. Use that passion to help bring others alongside you. It is a fearful thing to be innovative and to actively try to disrupt the status quo you have been working for during your entire professional life. It is not an easy thing to be an effective innovator, and no amount of thinking will be enough to get stakeholders and team members to rally behind you and help you see your concept take flight. Displacement occurs when something new comes along, and people will undoubtedly lose their jobs or be moved to another one if your concept is successful. Perhaps it will cause profits to slip for a period, or cause a shift in leadership as a result of what you are trying to do. There is no clean way to make a difference; it’s as if you are on a surf board in the ocean and either you ride the wave or you get buried in it. There are certainly ways to minimize chaos, but not entirely, which is why companies are not prone to being disruptive. However, it is still possible to be innovative, and companies have money like never before to support ventures from within. If you have the concept that will make the difference, the first step will be a courageous one. The real test will not be the value of your idea, but the conviction and courage to step out into the spotlight to get your concept in front of the right people, along with the gumption to follow through and see your concept fight its way against the opposition that will show itself along the way.
Steve Jobs – Design
Steve Jobs was a smart man, but also had a passion for well-designed products. He knew the value in building something that looked and worked a certain way and was not content simply building a faster or more efficient machine. He required it to have a certain kind of interaction and a specific kind of aesthetic look and feel before it was brought to market. Whether it was his ruthless nature making sure each detail was just right for his keynotes, or his highly scrutinized management style that focused on details to the nth degree before being released to the public, there is no denying his impact on the world of computing today. He believed that innovations should be beautiful, and not just practical. Though he is an innovator for a number of reasons, it is this one that I believe everyone should take note of. It is easy to get lost in the math of a concept, or the focus to just make it work. Focusing on the design, the look and feel, as well as the operation is something that can take your concept into a complete new category of competition and create something people will remember long past the point that the function is relevant.
Each of these individuals brought something to the table which helped them lead teams, make decisions and impact the world based on the roles they played along the way. For some, it was deciding to see things differently and be ok with not everyone understanding what it was they were trying to share. For others, it was standing by their commitment and conviction regardless of what might happen down the road. For a handful, it was in knowing they had gold in their hands, and that people would eventually come to see it, even if there were numerous road blocks in their way at the time. There is no one single combination of skills that will make someone a better innovator, but, having an idea and building the belief that you have a unique set of skills to bring it to life is the universal starting point. Too many ideas fall by the wayside because someone does not believe in themselves to the same level of belief they have in the idea and so they let it die out of fear.
It could be that the idea in its current form is not enough to get the concept going, so it will take perseverance and belief that it will evolve into something great. That can be the difference between having an idea and having an impact on the world around you. In the corporate space, it will take a lot of things to be successful at bringing about big changes, but you are not more or less qualified than anyone else with ideas and a desire to act on it. People from all walks of life have been or have not been successful at driving concepts into creation. It is the hard work and difficulty you will face that you have to be willing to work past and be prepared for.