This post is part of the Innovation 101 series, a collection of essays exploring this topic from various perspectives
Contrary to what the media will portray about overnight successes and savant teenagers who, during a single stroke of genius in their dorm rooms, create the next great multibillion-dollar company, the reality of innovation is that it's hard, really hard to do. To innovate consistently, therefore, is exponentially harder.
The evidence on how hard it is to create something valuable for customers is in the statistics: 50% of new businesses close in the first 5 years and, of those companies that manage to grow enough to go public, their life expectancy nowadays is a mere 18 years! Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but these numbers are a pretty solid confirmation of how difficult life is for innovators out there.
The natural question then is: why is it so hard to innovate? Much has been written around the most common causes of startup failure, but ultimately, I believe it comes down to two things: Fear and Luck.
One of the main reasons it’s so damn hard to innovate is that the skills and mindset required to succeed go against human nature. FDR's famous words were uttered in a desperate attempt to prevent the American public from prolonging the Great Depression by stuffing all their money under the mattress and never engaging in commerce again. This same truism is spot on for innovators around the world as they are confronted with their shortcomings at every step of the way. Fear in the context of innovation usually shows up in the following ways:
Fear of not being good enough
What if other people don’t like my idea? what if customers give us bad reviews? What if I can’t pull this off?
Fear of being wrong
What if this is not a real problem to customers? What if the solution I had in mind is not adequate?
FEAR OF FAILURE
What if I ruin my reputation? what if I jeopardize my family’s future? What if I let down all the employees/investors/supporters?
FEAR OF Iteration
What if this design is not elegant enough? what if we wait until feature XYZ is complete to go to market?
FEAR OF Uncertainty
What do I do after we’re done with this step? What happens to problem X while we’re solving Y?
FEAR OF making mistakes
What if we break something? What if we make current customers/users upset?
Do any of these sound familiar? I’ve personally asked myself all the self-limiting questions above and it’s a constant fight with my self-preservation instincts to rise above them, but that’s what it takes to innovate.
The good news is that overcoming fear is entirely under your control! By embracing the highly uncertain nature of innovation and correcting wrong decisions as quickly as possible, your chances of success improve. This is obviously much easier said than done, hence the ugly stats described earlier. The bad news, however, is that a significant driver of innovation success is not under anybody’s control.
Here’s what Bill Gates had to say when asked about what role luck played in his success:
Luck is a very difficult thing to accept as an innovator, to the point where most entrepreneurs I meet flat out refuse to recognize that there could be anything in the universe beyond their influence which could squash their plans. "I can fix it” is the attitude that makes innovators persevere through challenges, but at the end of the day, there are many factors that can, in fact, make or break an innovation, such as:
Microsoft was a big bet on the PC at a time where the whole concept of a computer in everyone’s desk was a laughably radical idea. The success of the PC platform was critical to Microsoft which, in turn, helped the PC consolidate its dominance. Sometimes, other innovations that your business depends on shift in unexpected ways and catapult you to success or wipe you out. Joel Spolsky wrote the canonical text on this phenomenon, which he calls “complements and substitutes”.
Imagine bringing a mortgage-related product to market at the onset of the Great Recession? Or establishing an e-commerce product after the dot-com crash? No matter how great certain innovations are, sometimes they get trampled unfairly by the market. Timing is only useful before you start, but plenty of ideas that would otherwise be great die mid-flight when macroeconomic shocks happen.
Nicola Tesla had the unfortunate experience of living in the same time period as Thomas Edison. Someone somewhere was working on a better classifieds-based search engine, then Google happened. Sometimes, game-changing technologies (or in Tesla's case, masterful "douchebaggery" from Edison) simply take a market by storm and the winner takes all. Same is true when startups get crushed by bigger players entering their markets (ie. Google Apps vs half of all web startups out there).
To innovate is hard. To innovate consistently, using skills that are counter intuitive to human nature, at the risk of being wiped out by factors beyond your control anytime is really hard. That being said, there is no alternative but to innovate. The pace of change in the world today is so great and it is accelerating, so what is the status quo today is simply a target for future disruption. As the robots rise to automate away our jobs, creativity and its business equivalent, innovation, are increasingly becoming the only places left for humans to contribute. Will you listen to Roosevelt's call and take up the challenge?