Innovation is Generous
By Ty Hagler | 5 Minute Read
There is a fascinating dichotomy in the innovation field between what I’ll call the “generous mindset” and the “financial mindset.” Explore and exploit. Nurture and scale. Diverge and converge. One has to be careful to get the order of thinking right to create meaningful disruption in their industry.
I’ve been listening to Seth Godin’s podcast, Akimbo lately. (It’s exceptional.) Seth practices and teaches this principle that, to do anything creative, you have to adopt a generous mindset. His audience and perspective started in the book publishing industry, but has expanded into other fields and industries, generally attracting people who want to “make a ruckus.”
In his podcasts, Seth talks about how hard it is to publish a book, and then the difficulty of factors beyond your control, like what happens if the launch gets no reaction. Rather than focus on over-promotion of the book, he suggests that you simply focus on writing the next book. Be generous with your creative craft because it is the quality of your work that will sell itself - or not.
Why has the Stanford BioDesign process been so successful and yet those programs that mimic it fail to reproduce the results? Because they started with a mindset of generosity and education that has produced outsized financial returns as a secondary effect. Other academic programs, seeing those financial returns, try to mimic the success but ignore the generous approach yielding marginal results.
Exploration Before Exploitation
The finance mindset, when starting up an innovation program, only produces incremental results. The tendency to expect ROI from early stage opportunity screening misses the point. Large corporations routinely struggle to compare unproven ideas to known products that regularly produce revenues. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely a time and place for the finance mindset, and The Explorer mindset may not always have the tools to scale up efficiently. Initial traction must be found in order to exploit a great idea. Many venture capital investors prefer to only invest when sales of a product are demonstrated and showing signs of exponential growth given a simple infusion of capital and connections.
To avoid pitfalls of applying the finance mindset too early and too aggressively, change the objective to first understanding needs. The real pain of real people. Then, after truly listening and empathizing, give those people an over abundance of ideas of how to reduce pains and increase happiness.
One of the greatest angel investors and founder of Angel List, Naval Ravikant, in describing his ideal founder says he looks for “intelligence, clarity of vision, perseverance, and integrity.” Ethics and integrity are something you do despite the money. Investing in a company means you’re going to be spending scarce time with the founders over the next ten years.
Money management is crucial, but that isn’t the vision. Frugality is not why designers wake up excited to innovate, and cost cutting isn’t what excites consumers to buy inventions. Cutting edge products made with empathy and care get an audience’s rapt attention. A clear brand message projecting unambiguous values keeps an audience loyally engaged. Corporate spending reports do neither of those things.
Taking risks is scary, but generosity doesn’t mean wild abandon. Generosity delivers a good and honest investment of resources into creating something that will be meaningful to the audience it intends to target.
A CEO doesn’t have to sell the clothes off their back to make meaningful disruption in their industry. People are out there right now needing solutions. Find them, listen to them, and once you have the idea that they are excited about, the initial investment will be worth it. People are willing to pay to have their problems solved in brand new and better ways. Solutions are even more meaningful when crafted by an affected group’s very own input. Simply listening will put a startup miles ahead of any firm that thinks it knows what other people must certainly need without ever bothering to ask. Market disruption feels good and it sells. Make a scene. Get loud.
The money will happen if you work with communities to conjure up some design magic. The design magic isn’t as easy to conjure up with a refusal to budge on finances. Fearful penny pinching leads to cost reduction in exactly all the wrong places.
Leave doubt behind. Get out there and create.