Innovation Illusions: It’s not the idea it’s the action – innovation only exists when value is created in the market

Creativity. Invention. These are core elements in the process of innovation. They are not innovation itself. Mistakenly identifying them as innovation creates confusion and dissatisfaction. An idea, fully formed, but not realized in any tangible manner, creates little value. It might spur other invention or other creativity, but unless it is directly applied to meeting a particular need or providing a solution to a defined challenge, it cannot be labeled innovation.


What can this piece of paper do; Imagine?

–       Alamgir Hashmi

Mistakenly regarding something shiny and new as an innovation is commonplace. Innovations are concrete and make a meaningful difference to a user. That doesn’t mean all innovations are serious or universally appealing. I give you exhibit A: the Slap Chop. (Note: I’m not linking to the official Slap Chop site as the number of pop-up ads is a nightmare. Think: “innovation as annoyance.”) This device, one in a long line of “As Seen on TV” kitchen gadgets, is designed to save one from the drudgery of using a knife to actually, well, cut things. As an innovation it’s not a big stretch, but somebody somewhere must consider it of value: it’s one of the biggest-selling gadgets in recent years. Its popularity has also given rise to fantastic remixes of its commercials, such as DJ Steve Porter’s YouTube hit.

Infomercial lunacy aside, the Slap Chop demonstrates what has to happen to an idea before it can be considered an innovation: it must make it into users’ hands.


Ideas as a false focus

It is our illusions that create the world.

–       Didier Cauwelaert

For many intent on fostering innovation in their organization, the front end (i.e., ideation) is most likely their primary target. The reasons for this are many: it’s easier to engage with the generation of ideas than the work of implementing them; the notion of producing ideas gives a false sense of accomplishment (“Look, I filled up the whole whiteboard/easel sheet/napkin. I rock”); and it’s simpler to pitch idea creation as a sign of innovation success to senior leaders and peers, especially when looking for a quick victory.

The ongoing pursuit of idea generation means that we neglect to build the infrastructure necessary to support their systematic and repeatable production for customers (be they paying customers in the marketplace or internal customers). Ideas are valuable only in relation to the problem they solve for a particular constituency. If there is no human target for your ideas, what’s the point? Action is required, the kind of action that breathes life into an idea, that makes it useful and of value, that requires more than the appearance of effort. Usually that effort is provided by more than one person.


Many hands make faster, lighter, easier work

The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.

–       Daniel J. Boorstin

Often we think we know more than we actually do. A while ago, we posted on the topic of fundamental attribution error. In that post we described how easy it is to delude yourself into behaving as though you have all the answers. If you are only concerned with the generation of ideas, the notion that you should be concerned with their utility in the market would be quite foreign to you. Many people and organizations fall into the trap of doing the same thing that worked before over and over again, even when the circumstances are no longer appropriate.

Inventors invent. Because people are more likely to take the actions indicated by the thinking foremost in their minds, coming up with “wild and crazy ideas,” this means that people whose perception has been affected by intense subjectivity are more likely to think of and take actions that underestimate the effects of relationships and interactions. They have an illusion of progress without all that horrible effort. (Yes, that is sarcasm.)

Neglecting relationships and interactions also reinforces the “ivory tower” syndrome, the idea that only a single great mind can come up with the truly world-changing idea. Thomas Edison, the great American innovator renowned for his amazing ability to produce inventions, was no lone player. While he took sole credit for many inventions, people fail to realize the wealth of additional resources he had at hand to produce his ideas. His Menlo Park laboratory was a hive of industrious activity with men (mostly men) producing prototypes of his ideas and experiments to test his theories. Edison knew the value in an idea was the ability to deliver it to market. And he was tenacious about delivering.

That perspective runs completely counter to the creative genius of Nikola Tesla, an Edison rival, who died alone, in debt, in a New York hotel room. Tesla decried the scale of Edison’s efforts in producing his innovations, he saw it as wasteful, yet history bears out the greater impact of the more productive man.


A culture of creativity tied to a culture of execution

A really great talent finds its happiness in execution.

–       Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Sharing the creative process with others in a collaborative manner can unlock ideas and bring them to market faster and with greater impact. It requires an organizational mindset that binds idea generation tightly to their execution and delivery to meet users’ needs. This requires a resilience and flexibility that accommodates different perspectives, synthesizes them, and integrates them into a common purpose. Rather than being focused on the declaration of impossibility, for innovation to succeed it must take a leaf out of the improviser’s playbook and adopt the art of the possible.

In improv, the phrase “Yes, and…” is used to begin responses to an idea that’s been offered by other actors, driving creative outcomes. The original idea is merely the starting point, a place for departure— it is not the destination. To treat the idea as the hardest part (or the most valuable part) of an innovation is to be led into a false sense of security. It offers the illusion of success. Those with more experience as innovators know the truth.

With an idea in hand, they recognize that the hard work is about to begin.


  1. Drew – what a terrific post! and how true – I see this split as a classic right brain-left brain example in companies – marketing etc. and some R&D love the ideation and then the ‘process’ side (routinizing vetting & prototyping & testing thru to commercialization – or not) is just not as ‘fun’ and the (generalizing) engineering types take over & polarization starts – it’s a culture thing…being able to embrace the importance of both sides, cross-train, and help each understand the value and purpose of the entire innovation process….thanks! d

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