The 5 Marks of Real Innovators

The 5 Marks of Real Innovators

By Todd Dewett

Everyone says they love innovation.  Most companies don’t.  In fact, most of them hate innovation.

They suffer from two major ailments.  The first I refer to as the innovation rhetoric syndrome.  This is when a company consistently suggests it needs and values innovation through every imaginable outlet (their website, press releases, the shareholders report, etc.) while consistently shunning real innovation.  The rhetoric is hot air put forth like great PR because they know they are supposed to say these things.  What kind of company could possibly not say they are for change, creativity, and innovation?

In practice they can’t stand deviations.  The average manager wants tight processes, risk reduction, and predictable outcomes.  When someone tries something new, their tolerance is low and critical evaluations are doled out quickly.  It takes no time at all for this behavior to create a stuffy culture of status quo.

The other major element is a crippling disease known as incrementalism.  Here, the company knows that you must change tomorrow and do something different than today, but not too different.  To reduce risks they create and constantly tweak a never-ending series of analysis tools, stage gate models, and layers of well-intentioned bureaucracy that effectively kills innovation.  If your only goal is to create a new flavor of toothpaste next year, this approach works fine.  Otherwise, it’s time to get serious.

If you aspire to more than mere survival you have to learn to embrace these five philosophies of serious innovators:

Compete on different fronts.  There are five major innovation targets:

  1. Products
  2. Services
  3. Processes
  4. Technologies
  5. Business models

Companies make two huge errors here.  They compete almost exclusively on products and services (two top line approaches) and they neglect the less sexy but equally potent possibilities found in process innovation (a bottom line approach).  For the truly brave, there are two additional risky approaches that are even more neglected:  creating new technologies and creating new business models (both of which are more disruptive approaches to innovation).  The point is that over time, you can’t be a one trick pony.  Focus on multiple targets.

Dream big or go home

Jack Welch gave us the famous example of tasking his team with being #1 or #2 in every market.  Steve Jobs asked John Scully whether he wanted to sell sugar water or change the world.  Companies don’t create engaging cultures full of motivated employees without having clear purpose.  The pundits get lost in arguments about the difference between mission and vision and similar labels.  Keep it simple – what’s the driving purpose?  What’s the dream?  If you say 15% returns annually, you’re destined to be mediocre.  Think of it this way – if the dream doesn’t make everyone just a little bit nervous, it’s not audacious enough.

Reward well-intentioned deviance

This is the antidote to incrementalism.  You must realize all great outcomes are preceded by half-baked ideas and complete failures.  There are NO exceptions.  That means you have to love learning.  The goal is not risk avoidance.  It’s smart risk taking, faster and cheaper.  The real sin is inaction, not principled attempts at innovation that fail.

Historically, my favorite example is the famous Hewlett-Packard tale about Chuck House’s Medal of Defiance, given to him by David Packard for “extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering duty.”  When it was not clear if a display monitor championed by House was going to pan out, he was told to scrap the project.  He did not and with the help of other deviants pushed the project all the way to production.  It later became very successful and helped the company rethink its approach to passionate deviants and mavericks.

Empower crazy evangelists

Serious innovation is difficult and sometimes takes abnormally dedicated zealots to see things through to the end.  One take-a-way from the Chuck House story is the need to find intrinsically motivated people, empower them, and get out of the way.  Let’s be clear – that does not mean formal leaders only.  Evangelists might be found among the rank and file.  Hell, they might not even be your employees.  Nothing makes this more clear than the Graphing Calculator story (

In the early 1990s Ron Avitzur and Greg Robbins, two non-employees who should not have been allowed access to the building, somehow created a revolutionary piece of software and found a way to have it shipped on each of Apple computer’s hard disks.  They did not get paid.  They just wanted to do something great.  Finding your evangelists is a huge part of making innovation more than incremental.

Know when to let go

This has been referred to as killing the cash cow.  Clayton Christensen and others have been big supporters.  You can argue about the conditions that make this viable, but the idea is solid.  Cash cows slowly kill us by sucking up all the resources to keep the cow alive instead of focusing on finding another great cow.  This is another way of saying that success will kill you.  That’s why at the dawn of the computer age, IBM’s Watson once allegedly said “there might be a world market for five computers.”  Whatever made you great yesterday won’t last.  Get over it, stop over-investing in it, and start looking for the next cool cow.

Innovation used to mean something.  Today it still does, but the word has been tarnished by hoards of companies that cling to the word but don’t walk the talk.  Real innovators are brave.  They take a varied approach to innovation, they dream big, show some love for the deviants, empower the zealots, and know when to let go.  These are not easy philosophies to embrace, but they sure feel better than excessive rhetoric and uninspiring incrementalism.

If you have any questions or would like to know if we can help your business with its innovation challenges, please contact us here or email us at

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