Vision, Innovation and what you think you are doing…

The single biggest barrier to innovation is a lack of imagination. The second biggest barrier is the failure to commit to your imagined future state when everyone else tells you that you’ve got it wrong; that you are not making sense; that investors “won’t get it” or some other variation on the theme.

As Seth Godin put it today:

When an engineer has a proven ability to ship stuff, to keep things humming and not crashing, it’s easy to fall into the trap of rejecting anything that hasn’t demonstrated that it can work, that hasn’t proven itself in the market.

Competence is not the same thing as imagination.

PS the marketing elite have precisely the same problem.

[From The small-minded vision of the technology elite]


Sounds simple, but it is why have we so many things touted as innovation that don’t pass the sniff test:

  • We innovated our data center infrastructure by moving our data center to Washington state.
  • We innovated voice communications by sending voice over an IP network.
  • We innovated <insert sector here> software by creating online <insert sector here> software.

It is also why so many of the exciting new products (yes, I’m talking about TechCrunch50) are, well, underwhelming:

  • Twitter for corporate use – THE WINNER
    • Apparently just presenting Twitter + an actual Business Model is enough to be best of TC50
  • BlahGirls – Really?
  • iCharts

more after the jump…

To be perfectly clear… many of the TC50 presenters had nice products. The problem is I’m not sure there were more than 3 or 4 viable companies in the whole bunch. And the reason for that is the same lack of imagination.

As Seth points out – the small-minded vision of the elite (i.e., the ones who grant you access to TC50, DEMO, Invest Southwest, etc) inexorably leads to derivative, incremental products and services. That is simply because it is very difficult to persuade the elite to imagine the innovator’s future state. It isn’t that they are ignorant, it isn’t that they willfully fail to imagine (as a matter of fact, many will tell you that if they can’t “see it” no one will), it is just that it is easier to do what you know.

As importantly – understanding someone else’s imagined future state is a time consuming process. You have to commit to listening. When is the last time you found an elite who wanted to sit with you for three hours and listen? Not talk, not pontificate, not explain why they are smart and you aren’t… just listen?

The real question is – why are you (the innovator) limiting the scope of your imagination by the scope of the elite’s?

My opinion is simple – no innovation has ever been immediately recognized by the domain experts. As a matter of fact the domain experts are generally domain experts not because of their ability discern the innovations that will disrupt the domain but because they understand the current state of the domain and have some insight into the next incremental products/services.

So what is the innovator to do.

  1. Remember – you are the market maker.

    1. Simply put, this means that relying on the elite to make the market for you (that is what you want them to do by validating your imagination) is foolish. You have to do it.
  2. You only need one

    1. What you need is access and funding to prove your imagined future is valid. That only takes one person who shares your imagination. Find the one.
  3. Focus on the value

    1. People recognize innovation as innovation only after you’ve won market share. Focus on delivering value for your customers you’ll win market share.

Do those three things and you’ll have more elites to talk to than you’ll know what to do with. But more importantly, you’ll have employees, shareholders, and customers – and a real company.

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