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Innovation as Deviation: Embrace the Unknown

Innovation as Deviation: Embrace the Unknown

Often even the best of leaders struggle with innovation. Why is innovation so difficult and hard to manage? There are fundamental things about innovation that make it different from all the other skills and tasks that leaders perform in their everyday lives.

There is a beguiling paradox at the center of all innovation: innovation is defined not by what it is but by what it is not. In any other endeavor, there are conventions — or, a normal way of doing things. Innovation, by definition, is a departure from norms. In this way, you can call innovators deviants. They do things that are unexpected. They do the things you’re not supposed to do otherwise.

There are situations where deviance is desirable and others where conventionality is important. If you’re in a high-velocity innovation field like biotechs that are constantly coming up with new medicines, innovation needs to have a faster speed and magnitude than everything else. There’s always the next miracle drug to create.

But if you’re in a low-velocity innovation industry that depends on something more conventional, like steel-making or ice-cream production, radical change isn’t actually desirable. In these fields, innovation needs to have a lower magnitude and speed. Here, innovation is incremental. So rather than worrying about a standard or stable definition of innovation, we need to think about innovation in terms of the conventions that determine any given industry and how far we want to move away from those conventions.

Innovation happens in the future — for which we have no data right now. What’s going to happen with the currencies? What’s going to happen with European policy? What’s going to happen with the political conflict in the Middle East? I don’t know. And you don’t know, either.

In order to find out what’s going to happen in the future, we have to run meaningful experiments. We can’t just keep planning. Excessive planning is a form of resistance. Planning is inaction. It’s like having a meeting about another meeting. Instead of planning, try many things — run multiple experiments at once — and see what works as you feel your way to the future.

Innovation has a shelf life. It goes sour like milk. An innovation doesn’t stay an innovation for very long. Think about all the cool new technology you bought last year. This year, it’s junk. Last year it was an innovation, but this year, it’s simply not an innovation anymore. In this way, there is a competitive spirit that underlies all innovation: what we do this year has to be better than what we did last year.

Deviance, uncertainty, futurity — these are not the normal things that we’re confronted with on a daily basis. These are the things that make innovation such a wild departure from all other skills and tasks we do. But there are concrete ways of managing these difficulties. Embrace the unknown. Be flexible. Keep your eyes open. Change your mind. Don’t plan for the future or wait for the future to come to you. Build the bridge as you walk over it.

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