Innovators are always “doing things” – six risks they brave to do so

In a somewhat recent conversation with the Analytic Muse group, we revisiting the innovation vs. creativity question. Academics Kanter and Amabile both say that the difference is in implementation. The creative process involves ideation mostly – variation or generation, selection, and retention (Campbell, 1960), whereas the innovation process makes ideas usable through implementing them.

So what makes a person creative as opposed to innovative?

From a lay person’s perspective, it seems that creative people think differently. They can come up with lots of ideas, often unusual ones, and may see things in a different way.

Innovators on the other hand are always doing things. They actually build their ideas. They try out new ways of doing things, they produce and share, they contribute in a way that has concrete application. You know the guy – Hunter Mack for instance at manages to get a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley, but also (on the side) writes a successful music blog, sells his artwork in galleries, puts on multimedia art and music shows in San Francisco, and just started a Gold Robot Records, a label specializing in 7-inch albums (a constraint he set up for very good aesthetic philosophical reasons!).

Jono Hey, also getting his PhD in Engineering, also maintains a blog, writes his own classical piano music, and designs games. He posts his beautiful photos on Flickr and shares them.

Dave Benett is a lawyer by day. But he is a successful and innovative DJ by night. He goes out and finds and starts trends and delivers them to the rest of the world in a new mashed up form that transports you. He makes events full of delicious music, sexy dancing, and serendipity happen where there otherwise might have been just a boring night at a bar. And when he finds a collection of music he loves, he mixes it perfectionistically in his living room, burns the session to CD, and shares it with his friends. We are all cooler for it.

These are just three examples of innovators. They balance input with output better than anyone else I know. They are not just consuming, they are contributing. It’s inspiring. I have no doubt others have created because they do – I certainly vouch for that.

Sure, you could have had that idea too – but did you implement it? (Say that next time someone next to you at MOMA grumbles at Pollack or Rothko!)

Innovation therefore involves taking more risk than just creativity. Changing the risk : reward ratio is the first step towards increasing your implementation habit. There are at least six levels of risk involved in implementing ideas.

1. Threat to the ego. Our ideas are our babies. They are little extensions of ourselves. But once they’ve left our heads – either through our lips or our hands – they are no longer under our protection. Imperfections and flaws are inevitable. We may not be ready to see those flaws, because we internalize them to mean that we are personally flawed. So sometimes we are afraid to let our ideas leave the nest and become built.

This is probably an appropriate self-protective mechanism to a point, but if we never get brave enough to risk seeing the flaws in our own ideas then we will never bring them to life. Moleskines and Circa Notebooks full of brilliant ideas may line our shelves, but we have contributed little to the world. Eventually, this cowardice (which may come in the form of indecision, self-distraction, or procrastination) is deeply unsatisfying.

2. Opportunity costs. Resources will be consumed. Your time will be spent. There is the risk that your time and resources (which are scare!) won’t be well spent – what if your idea, which seems so nice in the abstract, doesn’t work out in the concrete?? That would be a bummer, especially if you’re a tight-wad with your time and resources (or if they’re scarce). Because creative ideas *by definition* have never been implemented before (at least by you), this is a good chance they won’t work out the first, third, even twentieth time you build them.

This is why some design firms have begun to engage in rapid prototyping – reducing the cost of implementing during trial runs in order to get success more quickly. But the other benefit of prototyping quickly, roughly, and often, is that when your brain learns that prototyping is not so costly, your psychological resistance towards implementation is greatly reduced.

3. Accountability to others. “What’dja do this Saturday, Caneel?” “Umm…. I implemented this crazy hair-brained idea I had, and after the whole weekend it didn’t work” – just being accountable to others (e.g., a family member) about how we spend our time increases the perceived risk of implementing.

4. Personal identity. Other people might see it if it’s built, whereas they won’t see it if it’s just in your head. What they think of your idea (once it’s been implemented as they can see it) may get transfered to your identity in their minds.

5. Capriciousness. Perhaps most importantly, implementation demands a commitment to your ideas in their future form. Since this future form is unknown (remember, it’s never been built before, at least by you!) you can’t say with any certainty if you will still even want the thing once it’s built. Will you capriciously change your mind about its appeal before you’ve finished following through on it? (A nice excuse for chickening out.)

The solution here may be to find ways to enjoy building, simply for the process of building. This requires a Zen-like detachment from the outcome (what it is once it’s built) and an acceptance on the present (the building of it).

Note: Contrary to what many convenient pseudo-nuevo-Buddhists would like to believe, acceptance does not mean complacence. Innovation, as we said is personal. The very first thing you have to accept if you’re going to be an innovator is that it was your very own thought (that the idea was worthwhile) was powerful enough to put this whole process in motion in the first place! Thus, your desire to build is the first thing you have to accept – accept the energy. Feel it. Observe it as it changes. Run with it!

6. The Fear of the Mythical Ouch. Building requires effort. Sometimes we think we don’t like expending effort. This is baloney. On the contrary, life thrives when challenged. Being alive is work. Being dead is not. But work does not have to be painful.

Live each day in such a way that you are ready for motion (be healthy and wise) when the next idea hits you. Sleep. Eat healthfully. Drink water. Intoxicate only in moderation. Find things funny. Turn off the damned TV! Don’t be busy, distracted, burnt out, or overbooked all of the time. Fight to keep flexibility in your schedule so that you can protect the divine creative flexibility of mind that you were born with.

Then get going. Implementation begets ideation. Motion begets motion. Think, dream, build, and share alike and we all shall prosper!

*This innovation brought to you by inspiration from the aforementioned innovators, Hunter, Jono, and David. 🙂