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Stop Starting and Start Stopping if You Want to Make Innovation Happen

Stop Starting and Start Stopping if You Want to Make Innovation Happen

What if the key to innovation isn’t starting something new? What if the real secret is stopping something old? Think about your life for a moment – that novel you want to write, that company you want to start, that cottage you want to build. You are a productivity juggernaut; a focused professional who can do the jobs of three people while simultaneously keeping yourself in the running for parent of the year. So if you are so good at making things happen why can’t you get to the unimportant stuff in your life? You know, the creative expression of your most essential work. The answer is obvious. You don’t have the capacity – the time, resources or energy – to do the new things because you are busy maintaining the old ones.

Why is it so much harder to stop doing something than it is to start doing something? Because the devil you know is always better than the devil you don’t. Don’t believe me? Consider losing that weight you’ve been trying to shed for a decade? Instead of starting a rigorous exercise regime, try passing on some of your current routines – the frappuccino at the corner café, the beer with the boys or watching the game sitting in your overstuffed lounger after the evening meal. Stopping something that is no longer useful or superseded by something more greatly desired frees up your assets. But nature does indeed abhor a vacuum. So what fills up the newly empty time slots – the spaces in our lives – can either be something comparable to what we have eliminated – more mindless task pursuit, another meeting or any variety of adminstrivia – or something of a very different nature. What is required is the purposeful transformation of this newly freed up capacity into something better and new.

Consider two very different cases of how a business stopped doing things the same way before it could start doing things in a new and innovative way:

  • In 1985, Microsoft dominated the operating system platform for most personal PC’s. It intentionally disrupted itself with the introduction of Windows. It saw Apple’s development of Lisa – a failed early version of Macintosh – as the inevitable future and embraced the visual object oriented system while quickly eliminating its predecessor.
  • In 1998, when facing bankruptcy, Steve Jobs famously eliminated Apple’s beige microcomputers – one of their few remaining profitable divisions – because he understood that the company would never advance as long as it was protecting its flank. The road back to prosperity was slow and methodical – candy colored coatings on existing microcomputers, cheeky ad campaigns and eventually the seeds of the handheld technology that now dominates the digital ecosystem.

Microsoft stopped the old because it wanted to. Apple stopped the old because it had to. Either way it took guts to do it. As customary with cycles of innovation, their roles are now reversed.

At the battle of Salamis, the Greek General Themistocles set his ships afire to repel the much larger Persian navy. Many of the invading forces abandoned their boats and fled across dry land. Themistocles had destroyed his own fleet to stop the incursion but reassured his soldiers when he remarked “We shall sail home on our enemy’s ships.” Put another way, we shall use our capacity that now carries our fears, compulsions, and weaknesses to bring us to our greatest victories.

Starting new things is easy. You just add an app or expand your work day a couple of hours or live with the adrenaline driven delusion that you are a superior person because you work harder and smarter than everybody else you know. Stopping things is hard. It’s full of feelings of loss, disappointment and failure. It takes more than creativity. It takes courage to stop what you’ve been doing to make room for the things you want to start doing now

Creative Destruction: From Genesis to Picasso to Apple Computers

Special thanks to Big Think for use of this video. Please visit them

JEFF DEGRAFF is a professor, author of Innovation You: Four Steps to Becoming New and Improved, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. He is called the “Dean of Innovation” because of his influence on the field. To learn more about Jeff and his work on innovation please visit You can follow Jeff on Twitter@JeffDeGraff and LinkedIn.

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