One of the many things the late Peter Drucker taught us was that only two things really make a business money: marketing and innovation. Everything else is an expense. Some people would add a few other profit-makers to the list, but few would deny marketing or innovation their places. At least, not publicly.
But what about privately, or at least subconsciously? That’s another matter. Many of us just don’t want to deal with innovation, because it’s too much trouble. New ideas push you out of your comfort zone, requiring you to scramble, to work harder, and to think more. For those of us already overstressed by a challenging work environment, that’s asking a lot.
Oscar Wilde, an Irish playwright and poet, said, “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” Few people knew this better than Wilde, a social butterfly and writer whose opinions and flamboyant lifestyle irked British society as few others have since. His ideas about life threatened the people of his era and social class—and in the end, a dangerous idea killed him.
In the late 1890s the Marquis of Queensbury, inventor of modern boxing, publicly accused Wilde of homosexuality—so Wilde sued him for libel. Legally, Wilde had to prove the Marquis’ accusation was in fact libelous, and Queensbury had amassed a large body of circumstantial evidence suggesting Wilde was gay (which was illegal in Victorian Britain). Unfortunately, Wilde’s case was weakened by his own behavior, and his flippant replies to the evidence backfired on him. He lost his case, was immediately arrested for gross indecency. He spent two years at hard labor, and his health never recovered. He died destitute in Paris in 1900, at age 46.
One new idea can revolutionize an industry—or put it out of business. So yes, ideas can be dangerous. But we can’t just ignore innovation, or we’d all still live in trees and eat bugs. Circumstances force innovation, because it’s the only way to avoid stagnation. Innovation provokes changes that must occur for us to move forward. So embrace the danger of innovation. Don’t give away the company, but do take calculated risks when necessary.
There are ways to handle innovation so you can advance your agenda without having it blow up in your face. For example:
1. Don’t try to act on all your ideas. Focus on one or two innovations and carry through with them until they’re complete. You only have so much time and attention to spare, so pick your best idea and give it your all. Innovate on what matters the most. Some business commentators refer to those who bounce from idea to idea as “idea monkeys,” because they’re never serious enough about anything to settle on it, even though some of their innovations could change the world if they gave them enough TLC.
2. Employ stealth. Sometimes potential innovations are struck down because they look like too much trouble to the people in charge. Instead of springing an idea on the decision-makers all at once, build support for it. Discuss it with others in your group, get their buy-in, and accumulate your evidence before presenting it to those who matter.
3. Don’t let history hold you back. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “We tried that before, and it didn’t work,” I’d have my new Corvette by now. The thing about change is that it’s change. Just because something didn’t work before doesn’t mean it won’t work ten years down the road, once society and technology have changed. Oscar Wilde certainly wouldn’t have ended up in jail just for acting (or being) gay today. Similarly, a project that was prohibitively expensive 20 years ago due to the cost of computer equipment might be ridiculously cheap now.
4. Don’t assume the naysayers are right. Once upon a time, people thought humans would probably never consistently travel faster than about 35 mph, the speed of a galloping horse. Boy, were they wrong. Then there was Thomas Watson, the IBM executive who opined in 1963 that there would probably never be a market for more than about five computers in the entire world. We have ten computers in our household alone. One music company exec passed on the Beatles because, as he put it, “Guitar music is on its way out.” My point? Even experts sometimes get it wrong. Some would claim that they usually do. Instead of dismissing an idea because someone has scoffed at it, give it a little time to grow, and then test it to see whether or not there’s anything there.
Ease Into Innovation
Modern companies live and die based on how quickly they can face, embrace, and absorb change. Innovative thinking makes this process easier. But beware the reality that ideas are dangerous, and when pursued too enthusiastically can slow you down—or can get shot down because of their penchant for making people uncomfortable. On the other hand, just because an idea makes someone uncomfortable or hasn’t worked in the past doesn’t mean you should dismiss it out of hand.
You may need to innovate at a slower pace than you like, but don’t give up on the idea of innovation.