Innovation Is About Combining Ideas, Execution, and Failure
We’re all here because we’re interested in entrepreneurship, and innovation. That’s what draws us to the articles in this publication. Maybe we want to be the next Nikolai Tesla, Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk. Or maybe we have smaller visions, and dream of working independently, crafting professional identities based on our skills and our relationships.
I’ve had dreams of being self-employed for years now. For many years it was simply a dream that I didn’t act on. Eventually I started trying a number of different side hustles. While living in Italy I helped researchers publish their papers in English. I wrote a book teaching people to automate scientific data analysis, and started a side company teaching people to do the same. I started writing the occasional Medium article on whatever happened to interest me whether it was data science, workplace culture, or comedy.
And none of those endeavors did very well. I made a bit of spare change, but that’s not enough to achieve my goal of quitting my day job. So I decided it was time to get some education, and see what I could learn to be better at innovation and entrepreneurship.
Much to my delight, Stanford has a graduate certificate program on exactly that.
One of the courses focuses on Leading Innovation. It teaches you what innovation is, how to be more innovative, how to manage people to encourage them to be more innovative, and how to build innovative teams.
When reflecting on what I learned in the course, I felt that there were three fundamental concepts and action items that I could use to learn to be more innovative. I’ve since put them into practice and found that it’s much easier to create new ideas and share them with the world.
Here are those three concepts and action items, so you can learn to be more innovative too.
Creativity happens at the intersection of worlds
Truly unique ideas are stunningly rare. Stunningly. This is because the human brain doesn’t really work that way. We’re good at understanding the world as it is, and at connecting the dots. Our brains build on foundations, and find problems to constraints. We’re not good at creating something from nothing, nor are we good at thinking our way through a vacuum.
“There is no such thing as a new idea. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.” — Mark Twain
What we are good at is combining ideas. We’re excellent at combining all the different things we’ve seen. We see a problem that’s occurring in our lives, and can instantly think about how other people have solved similar problems to come up with a solution. We can think about something we have and realize that it might be a little bit better if we borrow a trait from something else we’ve encountered. We can create new worldviews by combining the worldview of the culture we grew up in with the worldview of our friends from around the world.
Most of the new ideas that humans create are really a combination of different ideas we experienced. Let’s look at a few examples:
- Cajun food: I love cajun food. I think it’s one of the best cuisines in the world. Jambalaya is an incredibly delicious dish. Oh, by the way, cajun food is really French cuisine combined with West African cuisine and Spanish cuisine. Great innovation, combination of ideas.
- Smartphones: Smartphones have revolutionized the modern world. We carry a computer more powerful than anything the world could comprehend 20 years ago in our pockets at all times. We can call our friends and family, check our email, see our investment performance, listen to music, play video games, or do any number of other things whenever we want. On a device that’s basically a combination of the cell phone and the computer. Great innovation, combination of ideas. (By the way, the cell phone was basically a combination of the telephone and satellites).
- My comedy article: I recently wrote and published a comedy article pretending to be a mobster running a protection racket. This guy was informing you that you’re now a victim of his protection racket and owe him $500 per month…unless you’d prefer to be beaten. But he took it one step further than that — It’s not a protection racket, it’s a protection business! And you don’t have to be a victim, you can start your own protection business. All you have to do is recruit your friends and family! In other words, I combined protection rackets with pyramid schemes to make something new and funny. I’m not going to call that one a great innovation, but it demonstrates the combination of ideas.
Prof. Bob Sutton even goes so far as to define creativity in the following ways:
Bringing old ideas to new products, people, and places
Creating new combinations of old ideas from new ideas
-Prof. Bob Sutton, Stanford
If you want to be more creative, expose yourself to more different things. Then you’ll have more ideas that you can combine.
Action: Try and study anything that interests you. Anything. It could be as serious as business risk management, as silly as comedic structure, or as trivial as gerbil mating habits. No matter what it is you’ll be exposed to new ideas, and you’ll learn new things that you can apply to everything else in your life. You’ll have more ideas to combine, and you’ll be more creative.
Innovation is a combination of creativity and execution
We’re all “idea people” to some extent. We all see things about the world that we would like to change. We all have dreams. We all complain about things, and we all propose ways to make things better. We’re all capable of creativity.
But creativity is pretty much nothing without execution. It’s just a thought we had one day, an idea that led to nothing.
Innovation is the practice of coming up with a creative solution, and executing it. It’s the act of actually building something based on our creative vision. The art of creating something that solves the problem and releasing it to the world.
Real innovation occurs not when we have a new idea, but when we’ve created something from that idea and released it to the world.
Action: Think of one idea that you’ve had. Preferably a small one so it’s not too overwhelming. It could be a variation on a recipe you’ve thought about trying, or writing a quick Medium article teaching people something that you know. Do it. Now. See how it feels to act based on this idea and release it to the world.
You will fail
Innovative work is not routine work. You don’t have a well defined process to follow. You aren’t doing the exact same thing that somebody else has done a thousand times, and you don’t have clear instructions on how to do it.
Instead, you have an idea for something that nobody has ever done before. You’re creating new ideas and blazing new trails. You’re creating something that, quite possibly, nobody knows how to create. You’re releasing new things into the world that, quite possibly, nobody knows about or wants yet.
In other words, this is incredibly risky. Both because you might not know how to execute, and because maybe there’s no reward for executing.
To highlight this I’ll use some numbers that Prof. Bob Sutton presented in the course. Every year the IDEO “Youth” Practice produces:
- 4000 ideas
- 226 nice ideas or prototypes
- 12 products developed and sold
- 2 or 3 commercial successes
In other words, 3,997–3,998 out of 4,000 ideas, or 99.93%generated by the IDEO “Youth” Practice fail. IDEO isn’t an innovation genius because they’ve unlocked the secret to finding a successful idea every time. They’re an innovation genius because they’re discovered that the secret to coming up with good ideas is coming up with successful ideas is trying a lot of ideas. Which includes failing almost 4,000 times for every 2–3 successes.
You will fail. You will come up with ideas that cannot be created. You will come up with ideas that you don’t know how to create. You will come up with ideas that nobody wants, only to discover it when it’s too late.
But let’s keep one thing in mind. We’re talking about lower case f “failure”, not capital F “Failure.” This means you did something that didn’t work out, not that you’re going to spend the rest of your life living in your parent’s basement.
This kind of failure isn’t a big deal. It didn’t work out. So what? You’re probably still healthy, you probably still have your friends and family, and you probably didn’t invest your life savings in the idea. You didn’t really lose much.
Instead you gave yourself a chance to learn something. You probably learned some new skills that were necessary to pursue the endeavor. You’ve probably gotten to see a bit about what does work, what doesn’t work, and why the world works that way. You’ve also probably had the chance to pick yourself up after a defeat, and learned more about how to keep yourself going in dark moments.
Action: Get good at failure. Find small, low risk things that you aren’t yet good at. Try them out. Screw them up. Practice thinking about what you learned from the failure. Then get over it. Learn to brush off the sting of that failure, and find something else to try. If you try enough things, eventually one of them won’t fail.
Innovation is an extremely hard thing to do. We need to come up with a new idea that would actually make things better (No, my idea to ride a motorcycle in Minnesota winters by combining crotch rockets and snow chains does not count). We need to have the conviction and drive to execute on that idea so we can release it to the world. Then we need to come to be OK with the fact that the vast majority of ideas fail, which means that we will fail more often than not.
While we can never make this process easier, with the right insights and skills we can get better at it. We can fill our brains with different concepts from different parts of life, so we’re ready to combine different ideas and create something new. We can practice the skill of creating plans to execute a vision and build our personal drive to follow through on those plans. And we can get better at screwing up, and picking ourselves back up after lower case “f” failure.
Because that’s what innovation is all about. It’s combining ideas, executing those ideas, and failure.