Where Does Innovation Come From?

Last Updated Aug 29, 2011 2:54 PM EDT

Innovation is definitely a hot topic these days, but the one thing that's fuzzy for most people is where does it actually come from?

I mean, what makes one guy innovative and another, well, just a regular guy? Before we get into that, let me explain a few things about innovation.

For one thing, it's not the same as invention, although folks often confuse the two. Invention is a unique discovery or finding; innovation is introducing something new.

That may sound like semantics, and maybe it is, but at least in my mind, there's one big difference: innovation can be an application of someone else's invention in a new and practical way.

In Innovators Don't See Different Things - They See Things Differently, we talked about what Malcolm Gladwell calls the Creation Myth: that an innovator may not be the guy who comes up with the idea but the guy who turns that idea into something people can use.

Indeed, innovation isn't a supernatural event, a preordained occurrence that only happens to certain people. And great innovators don't go from zero-to-great in a heartbeat. More often than not, they stand on the shoulders of giants, see things a little bit differently, or benefit from timing, opportunity, or luck.

For example:
  • Steve Jobs didn't invent the GUI or the computer mouse, but when he saw them demonstrated, his mind was probably racing with practical applications.
  • Howard Schultz didn't invent coffee, espresso, or cappuccino, but he has certainly been an innovator in bringing all that to the masses through Starbucks.
  • McDonald's was the fast-food innovator, but I seriously doubt there are any real inventions under the golden arches.
  • Bill Gates didn't invent the PC operating system and he certainly didn't come up with the idea of licensing technology, but his business model - combining the two - made Microsoft one of the most valuable and powerful companies in the world.
Having spent my entire career working with entrepreneurs and innovators in the high-tech industry, these are the 10 characteristics and methodologies that I think define innovative people:

Where Does Innovation Come From?
  1. Standing on the shoulders of giants. Contrary to popular belief, innovation is often far more evolutionary than revolution, more practical and crafty than breakthrough invention. Most of the time you're repurposing somebody else's idea.
  2. Left brain - right brain balance. The whole left brain - right brain thing is a myth, but metaphorically speaking, I think innovation often springs from a combination of inspirational thought (right brain) and practical need (left brain). They say necessity is the mother of invention; it's probably more true of innovation.
  3. Belief that you're special. Many, if not most, innovative people have this sort of childish belief that they're special, destined for great things. The thought of doing something new and different - changing the world, as it were - can be daunting. Unless you truly believe it's your destiny, you'll probably be too scared to even try.
  4. Questioning conventional wisdom, the status quo. If you even mention how things are done or should be done to a true-blue entrepreneur or innovator, it's like nails screeching on a chalkboard.
  5. Vision. Oftentimes, people just have a vision of how they think something should be. It's really that simple. But they're also driven to see it through, as in the next bullet ...
  6. Driven by the need to prove something. Innovative people are definitely on a mission to prove something to somebody and half the time I don't even think they know who.
  7. Problem solving. If you're not a problem solver, you're probably not going to come up with anything that anybody will find useful. Control freaks are natural problem solvers - they can barely walk down the street without seeing all sorts of things that can be done better.
  8. Passion. Without passion and genuinely loving and caring about what you do, you simply won't have the resilience and stickwithitness to see innovation of any magnitude through. It's never just an idea - you have to actually do stuff with it.
  9. Focused brainpower. Athletes will tell you success is all about focus: you can't hit a 100 mph fastball or catch a 30 yard pass with defenders all up in your face without it. It's the same with innovation. Ironically, people who appear to be all over the map with ADD-like symptoms can have rare moments of clarity when it all comes together.
  10. Work stamina. There's loads of talk these days about working smarter, not harder, taking more breaks, etc. While I'm a big believer in not killing yourself with work, if you don't enjoy working and work stamina isn't in your blood, you're not likely to innovate a thing.
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