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How Breakthrough Ideas Become Mainstream

How Breakthrough Ideas Become Mainstream

Breakthrough innovation typically starts at the edges of the bell curve in the challenge of a crisis or the prospect of an outstanding opportunity. This is because the risk of deviating from the standard way of doing things and the reward of taking a chance on something new is reversed in these extremely negative and positive situations. For example, the Apple we know today was born out of its near collapse in the late 1990’s and the Telsa we currently marvel at can do no wrong because the public adores its haute couture product.

Leading innovation is different than all other forms of governance in that it pulls the exceptions at the edges of the bell curve to the stable center in an attempt to bring useful novelty into the norm. In this way, innovation often incites commercial revolutions: ubiquitous connectivity replaces shopping malls and universities, smart gadgets replace billfolds and magazines, miracle drugs replace invasive surgeries and going to the gym, and the like.

Up until recently, I supposed that innovation was the only domain that worked in this unique way. I was wrong. I now see that politics follows the same trajectory – but in reverse. Instead of the innovation dynamics pulling the outside-in, politics pushes the inside-out where we mistake the edges for the center.

Listen to the bewildering jumble of candidates and try to discern an underlying philosophy, the trajectory of a strategy or the application of a discernable method. How do their ideas hold together to create a solution? Each candidate tries to move the center farther and farther out to distinguish their ideas from the others. Soon perspective is lost and edges are taken to be the center. Marketers call this micro-segmentation. Everyone gets to have their politics their own way but only in their own little world. Collectively, where social contracts bind us in a common purpose, the center can’t hold because it can no longer be seen by all.

Follow the barrage of spin on your favorite social media site and it becomes evident that the various factions have little regard for the issues but a zealous allegiance to their party affiliation. The voices of the most rapacious and opinionated are the loudest and drown out the calm interpretation of the facts by the reasonable. Perhaps the great Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell put it best, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

I was recently in an airport when a man standing next to me started yelling at the television monitor in the gate area. I looked over expecting to hear some alarming newsflash about yet another tragedy or catastrophe. Instead, what I saw was an interview with a politician who presented himself in professional manner. When I asked the man standing next to me why he found the interview so upsetting, he explained that the politician was his congressman and he had completely changed his position on a key issue. I asked why. The man informed me that his representative had been on a committee to study the issue, and in light of the new facts, had adjusted his position. I was confused. I asked, “Isn’t that what intelligent people do, they get new information and change their minds?” The man released a torrent of obscenities my way and stormed off.

I tell the story because we often assume that our passions are informed by our reason, but for the most part, it’s the other way around. This man believed in something even when the facts suggested otherwise. He became a prisoner to his own limiting beliefs. He is unlikely to find innovative new ways to do things because he is unwilling to look for them.

So what does all of this have to do with innovation? Simple, innovation leadership is a tightrope performance on the bell curve. We need to see possibilities but be grounded in reality. We must demonstrate real conviction for our vision but be willing to change it as experience demands. We need to be open minded in the generation of ideas but critical in our deciding which ones to pursue. We need to believe we can succeed but be prepared to fail. In essence, we must assume a higher point of view and keep our balance if we are to move forward across the high wire.

There can be no variation, deviance or innovation if we do not share a nexus, fulcrum or center by which to gauge and navigate a way forward together. Perhaps the first step is to find our equilibrium by focusing on the center, regaining our perspective and reaching out to save our best ideas before they slide off the edges. The second, allowing the unbalanced to fall away where the slope is steepest.

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