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Start With Innovation, Then Make It a Revolution

Posted on the 20 February 2011 by Martin Zwilling @StartupPro

SamenessGreat startups these days start with innovation, and then take it up a few notches to make it a revolution. An example is Google, who turned a new search technology into a tool that most of us couldn’t live without. As an entrepreneur, how do you know if you have the potential to innovate, and what are the steps to get from innovation to revolution?

While digging into this subject, I came across a new book by Patrick J. Howie, called “The Evolution of Revolutions,” which makes the points that resonate with my experience. He starts with a discussion of the Big Five personality traits, used to explain individual differences across all walks of life. The following three seem to relate most closely to innovative potential:

  • Openness to experience. Scoring high on openness has been found to be the top predictor of an entrepreneur’s innovativeness. Having a curiosity to learn about all new things increases the likelihood of “seeing” novel solutions.
  • Hardworking and responsible. Innovation is hard work. Good entrepreneurs have to develop sufficient knowledge and enjoy the difficult problem-solving process to achieve real innovation. That requires a high level of commitment, and a high degree of ambition.
  • Desire to communicate. If an entrepreneur creates an innovation but never talks and shares it, then the innovation may never be recognized. An entrepreneur doesn’t have to be a raving extravert, but working with other people and selling are required capabilities.

With the right personality traits, the next step is to follow a productive innovation process. The sad fact is that the vast majority of new products and new companies fail to make it to market or fail to turn a profit. Here the key steps of a process that good entrepreneurs espouse:

  • Problem identification. Useful innovations are ones that solve a real human problem, rather than simply illustrating a capability of a new technology. Many entrepreneurs start with an impressive technology, but forget to relate it to a problem that affects large numbers of potential customers who have the means to buy it.
  • Motivation to inspiration. The germination of an innovation is elusive. Overt attempts to motivate people to be innovative or usually counterproductive. Good entrepreneurs are usually intrinsically motivated by a dream or vision, or even money, or inspired by a personal challenge or opportunity to change the world.
  • The new reality. Entrepreneurs need to critically evaluate their “habits of perception” to come up with new concepts of reality. This is called re-conceptualization, using the innovation they bring to the table. The hard part is bringing customers to that new reality.

The final step to successful innovation is to get it adopted by real customers, rather than simply being the subject of an academic report or technical journal. Patrick calls this “taking an innovation to a revolution.” This involves moving through the following three stages:

  • Overcoming resistance. All new innovations are evaluated against the current option, which may be doing nothing. The reality is that most people have a natural bias against change and innovation, so your challenge is to get them to re-concepualize.
  • Clarification and iteration. Most new products are not conceived or developed perfectly the first time. Thus resistance is a good thing, since it helps the entrepreneur to be more precise as they iterate on the definition, production, and selling of the innovation.
  • Evolution to a revolution. Every innovative product needs continuous follow-on, meaning additional innovation, with a cumulative value much greater than the original. Failure to pass this stage means your innovation is a fad, or a ‘one-trick’ pony.

Notice that none of these elements mentions risk. Traditionally, the level of innovation is aligned with the level of risk, yet many entrepreneurs do not consider themselves to be risk takers at all. If your goal is to spark “the next big thing,” it has to start with innovation, but that is only the beginning. Can you make the evolution from there to a revolution?

Marty Zwilling


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