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A leading innovation and marketing blog from Braden Kelley of Business Strategy Innovation

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Entrepreneurs and Innovation

"Mr. Edison, please tell me what laboratory rules you want me to observe?"

by Janine de Nysschen

A good friend of mine once sat down to lunch with Stephen Covey and a group of fellow executives. During the course of the meal, one of the men commented on the unusual tablespoons, and said "Look at the backend of it." All the people at the table flipped their spoons over, but my friend - quite unintentionally - angled it up so he could look at the bottom tip of it. Laughter ensued. But Covey raised a hand and pointed out that my friend's actions suggested something interesting in his behavior: the ability to look at the world in an unexpected way. So I guess it's not surprising to hear my friend is one of the most innovative entrepreneurs I know, as well as a successful millionaire who has transformed the industry he is in.

The story reminds me of an important fact. Entrepreneurs are often at the forefront of innovation. They possess a unique set of skills that lends itself to inspired invention and driven change. Really good business solutions and radical transformations in history have one thing in common. Somewhere, someone believed that you could do something better, different or completely new. Someone challenged the status quo or saw failure as an opportunity to try again. Often, those people were entrepreneurs.

One reason is that entrepreneurs tend to see the world around them differently. As Thomas Edison said to his laboratory assistant:

"There ain't no rules around here. We're trying to accomplish somep'n!"

Innovation is most often simply a matter of having a different perspective than everyone else, and the perseverance to make it happen. For example, some of the most creative people I know had learning disabilities growing up. Forced to adapt so they could fit into a rigid school format, many developed alternative ways of making sense of the world.

Tony Buzan, father of the world-renowned creative technique of Mind Mapping, is a point in case. Tony admits he came up with mind maps because he was "doing badly at school." He was also smart enough to realize that the way people were measuring intelligence was rather limited. Quick experiment: in your mind's eye, picture the moon, the sun, the earth and a lemon. Which one is different? While you may be like most people and select lemon as the odd-one-out, Tony would point out that if you were using color as your filter, earth would be odd because it's not yellow.

Innovation is therefore inspired by understanding that there's not always only one right answer. Or realizing you may have an answer to a problem that doesn't yet exist. Did you know that the parachute was invented before powered flight? In a "fascinating facts" piece about Sir James Dyson, you'll read that his inspiration for cyclonic technology happened one day while he was vacuuming his house (in itself, fascinating!) and he realized his top-of-the-line machine was losing suction and getting clogged. Dyson refused to accept there was only one good way to build a vacuum cleaner, and the cyclonic suction, roller-ball Dyson vacuum cleaner was born.

Innovation is also about seeing an idea for what it's really worth. Think about all those stories of accidental invention. Like Wilson Greatbatch back in 1956, who was experimenting with a device he was building to record heartbeats. He grabbed the wrong resistor and connected it, and discovered that the circuit emitted a pulse. Voila, Greatbatch realized his device could be used to control heartbeat, and the pacemaker was invented.

Which brings me to a final point on inspired innovation. I believe the most profound and valuable innovation and creativity has to come from a sense of purpose or a powerful cause - it is unbounded thinking about how to make life and the world more meaningful that leads us to solve great challenges and achieve impossible objectives. Just look at how one company's mission transformed the lives of millions of people: Microsoft, with its tagline of "A PC on every desk." And behind that audacious goal, an inspired cause to find ways for people and things to achieve their greatest potential.

Innovation comes in many forms and is a tool that's wielded well by many entrepreneurs. Having a different perspective has inspired many of Apple's products - simply because Steve Jobs refused to accept that everyday things such as radios and phones and computers had to be mundane and ugly. Ergo: Apple is synonymous with easy, simple and beautiful. Sometimes the entrepreneurial way out has to be invented. Understanding that there's not always only one right answer gave us solutions like Galileo's telescope and Sir James Dyson's vacuum cleaner. Then there are the accidental innovations, like 3M's experimental polymer that turned out to be less of an adhesive and more of a sticky fix that today everyone calls a Post-ItTM note. Ultimately, there's the kind of innovation that really makes this world a better place, because it comes from a passionate sense of purpose. Like Google's search engine, motivated by the cause of organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful.

Because entrepreneurs have had the courage to ask questions and take risks - wheels were invented, men learned to fly, machines were made to work more efficiently, and the world has moved forward. The spirit to invent and innovate lies at the heart of true entrepreneurship. Or, to loosely paraphrase Peter Drucker:

innovation is the specific tool that entrepreneurs use to increase their capacity to create wealth.

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Janine de NysschenJanine de Nysschen uses purpose dynamics to create unique change strategies for difficult problems, helping CEOs and companies increase their impact and performance.

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Anonymous Calvin Bacon said...


I wonder how much our culture affects our way of thinking. If one turns the spoon over to see the back, to what degree is it because we are conditioned to do so? Sometimes I think it helps people to be more innovative when we change their environment so that it disrupts the "normalcy" and frees individuals to think anew.

3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One man is committing himself to publication of 100 innovations, one per week, for the next 100 weeks. Professor Gunter Pauli issued his first innovation 2/22/10 (see www.zeri.org or www.zeroemissionshawaii.org). Each is based on scientific hypotheses and driven by entrepreneurial opportunities. If the right person or company reads and acts on one or more of the proposed innovations, it could mean a world of difference.

6:45 PM  

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