You can't think your way to being more innovative - you have to innovate your way there. Related Stories - Solvitur ambulando – A Great Creativity Hack - An Ideas Boom is a Good Start, But What We Really Need is an Impact Boom - ...


Innovation Leadership Network

If You Want to Be Innovative, Innovate

act not think

Too many people want to make their organisations more innovative without going through the pain of actually changing anything.

This does not work.

In an interview on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, Jocko Willink says:

If you want to tougher mentally, it is simple: be tougher. Don’t meditate on it.

It’s the same with innovation. If you want to be innovative, it is simple: innovate.

Here are some things that don’t work:

  • Buying the magic innovation software.
  • Bringing someone (like me) in to give an “inspirational talk” on innovation (which is why I don’t do these anymore). A one-day workshop doesn’t work either.
  • Buying a smaller, innovative company to kick-start internal innovation.
  • Building a corporate accelerator that brings in startups to do innovative stuff that’s related to your core business.
  • Outsourcing new product development, customer development, or any of the work that connects what you want to sell to the problem that people need solved.

Ultimately, all of these end up being innovation theatre.

Here is one thing that does work:

  • Try out lots of new ideas to see which ones create value, then scale those.

The problem is that to do this, you have to change the way you act. Which, of course, you must, if you want to be innovative.

There’s no shortcut. That’s why so few organisations are genuinely innovative. To be innovative, you have to innovate.


Here’s Your License to Innovate!

All the Permission You Need

Your Innovation License

The most common barrier to innovation that I hear about in my classes and talks is “But my boss won’t let me.”

Here’s a solution. Print this out, fill it in, and carry it with you at all times. Problem solved!

Your Innovation License

Actually, you don’t even need my permission to innovate – you just need permission from yourself. That’s all you’ve ever needed.

I’m working on an Innovation Decoder Ring and Secret Handshake, but for now, this will do.

Please start trying new stuff.

(Idea swiped from How to Be An Explorer of The World by Keri Smith)


Solvitur ambulando – A Great Creativity Hack

Solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking.

That’s the slogan for Keri Smith’s wonderful book The Wander Society (and here).

Her book is a manifesto for getting out and directly experiencing life through unplanned, mindful wandering.

The Wander Society Manifesto

It’s a great idea.

We need slack in order to have great ideasWandering creates slack – unstructured time in our day. That’s where ideas come from.

Physical activity helps us think better. This study outlines the benefits of walking. That’s just the physical part of it. Smith focuses on not so much on the exercise part, but on engaging directly with your environment as you walk. But in both cases, your thinking improves.

We need to experiment – the second use of Solitur ambulando is: “the problem is solved by a practical experiment.” When we try new things, we often rely on logic to figure out if our idea will work. This usually misguides us. It’s better to test the idea through experiments.

There’s an interesting tension between these two definitions – walking/wandering is open, and not task-based. It’s an oblique approach to engaging with your problem, which is the most effective way to deal with complex systems. Experimenting, on the other hand, is more direct.

To make our ideas work, we need both parts. The open, oblique wandering helps us have the great idea in the first place. The experiments help us figure out how to make the idea work in practice.

In both cases, Solvitur ambulando is a pretty useful creativity hack.

Let’s start walking.


Those That Get It Don’t Need It, and Those That Need It Don’t Get It

An innovation paradox

Here’s a central problem with trying to get any new idea to spread – often, those that get it don’t need it, while those that need it don’t get it.

It’s a paradox.

This leads to problems for people that have new ideas.

Problem 1a: you end up talking to the wrong people. It is easiest to talk to the people that get it – even though they don’t need your idea. Back in my startup days, we often went to First Tuesday in Brisbane to try to build our network. We’d talk to all the other local startups about the problems that we shared, and it was great – they really got it!

Did it help us build our business? No. No, it did not.

We were talking to the people that were easy to talk to – the ones that got it. But they didn’t need what we had built. To grow a business we had to talk to the people that needed our ideas. That was a lot harder. It was frustrating, and difficult. Mainly because:

Problem 1b: you might be solving a problem that people don’t yet realise they have. This problem is the opposite of the first one. This makes it really hard to talk to them, because when they hear your idea, they’ll hate it.

When this happens a lot, you’re in what Seth Godin calls the Gulf of Disapproval:

Here’s what he says:

Start at the left. Your new idea, your proposal to the company, your new venture, your innovation—no one knows about it.

As you begin to promote it, most of the people (the red line) who hear about it don’t get it. They think it’s a risky scheme, a solution to a problem no one has or that it’s too expensive. Or some combination of the three.

They need your idea, but they don’t get it.

The key to solving this paradox is to find the small number of people that will get it and that need it. Even for huge breakthrough ideas, this original group is usually pretty small.

These people are the blue line in Godin’s drawing.

Here is how Steve Blank describes them:

Earlyvangelists are a special breed of customers willing to take a risk on your startup’s product or service. They can actually envision its potential to solve a critical and immediate problem—and they have the budget to purchase it. Unfortunately, most customers don’t fit this profile.

Earlyvangelists can be identified by these characteristics:

  • They have a problem.
  • They understand they have a problem.
  • They are actively searching for a solution and has a timetable for finding it.
  • The problem is painful enough that they have cobbled together an interim solution.
  • They have, or can quickly acquire, dollars to purchase the product to solve their problem.


How do we find these people? We start by building a model of who we think they are, and what we think they need. This model is almost certainly wrong. We fix that by going out and talking to these people to learn about the problems that they are actively trying to solve.

Because we’re trying to identify problems, we’re not pitching during these conversations. We’re learning. If we do that enough times, we’ll figure out what a small group of people really need right now, and, with luck, we can build it for them.

People usually can’t explain what they need, especially if the idea is genuinely new. So you need to look for evidence of problems. In my experience, the sign that we’re really onto something is in Blank’s fourth point – when we find people that have already hacked together a solution of their own. This is strong evidence.

It turns out that our two groups of people aren’t mutually exclusive – there’s a small overlap:

When we have a new idea, our job is to figure out what these people need, who they are, and how to find them. Once we’ve done this, then more people will start to get the idea, and more people will also start to need it.

That’s the only way to cross the Gulf of Disapproval.


An Ideas Boom is a Good Start, But What We Really Need is an Impact Boom

Making Ideas Real

Who discovered penicillin?

Most people know the story of Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery in his lab. But here’s the tougher question: who turned penicillin into a life-saving antibiotic?

The answer to that is: a team led by Howard Florey.

The fact that many more people know about Fleming than Florey is a big problem.

Fleming’s feat took knowledge, skill, and preparedness. But Florey’s took all of that, a big team, plus five years of incredibly focused hard work. The biochemist Ernst Chain was a key team member (and shared the Nobel Prize with Florey and Fleming), and many others. As with most innovation, it was a collective effort. The team had to figure out how penicillin worked, then if it still worked in people, then how to manufacture it, then how to do so at scale. Every single one of those hurdles was challenging.

This is a common innovation mistake: we glorify ideas, while dismissing all the other work as “just execution.”

To innovate, we need three things: a great new idea, that we’ve made real, which creates value for people.

Making Ideas Real

Fleming had the idea, Florey’s team made it real and created value for people.

Making ideas real is unglamourous, as the case of penicillin shows. But even after doing all that work, we’re in trouble if it doesn’t create value for people.

There’s no one more frustrated than someone that has a great idea, and has made it real, but can’t get anyone interested in it. That’s why it’s so important to create value. It’s value creation that leads to impact, and impact is what we really want. Lean startup is the best tool I’ve found to figure out how to best achieve impact.

Ideas are important. But if we want to create change, we don’t just need an ideas boom – we need an impact boom.

Note 1: Here’s a draft paper with my colleague Robert Faff that discusses a tool we’ve made to help academic researchers focus on impace.

Note 2: if you’re a researcher at an Australian University, CSIRO is running a program designed to help with this. I’m facilitating the Brisbane stream.

Note 3: here’s my TEDxUQ talk on this:


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