Debunking the Biggest Innovation Myths Out There

The drive for innovation is a hallmark of business in the modern world, but what we think we know about the process is often far from true. We look at 12 myths and uncover lessons we can learn from each.
October 30, 2014

We live and work in the age of the lean startup, and we celebrate the advent of new technology—and new applications of tech—all the time. 

In the midst of all this bootstrapping and progress, sometimes the stories we begin to accept about innovation suggest a degree of certainty about how all of it works. However experts are quick to caution against just that kind of mistake.

"When working on innovations across a wide range of sectors, certain things are held up as principles that are true only in particular situations," says Mark Payne, founder of innovation consulting firm Fahrenheit 212 and author of How to Kill a Unicorn, a recent book on the subject.

With Payne's caution in mind, let's turn to 12 myths about innovation that business leaders would do well to ignore.

1. If you solve for the needs of the marketplace, the needs of your business will take care of themselves. Not so fast, says Payne. "In many cases, if you’re tasking an innovation team with creating something new, assuming the business that supports that effort will simply sort itself out is the single best way to tilt the odds against your ambitions coming to fruition," he says.

2. Thinking about how to make money is toxic to creativity. Don’t coddle or shelter creativity from the more mundane responsibilities that come with participating in a successful business. "Make them part of the vision," Payne says. "You’ll drive up your success rates if you do."

3. Creativity works best in the absence of pressure to deliver. Payne has seen the opposite in his line of work: "We’ve found that the right kind of pressure can be a creative catalyst."

4. If you have a visionary idea, any smart management team can figure out how to make it happen—and how to make money from it. The vision has to be firmly in your mind, and you have to be its greatest proponent. That is, if you can’t articulate your idea to your sponsor’s manager, how can you expect someone else who is less familiar with the project to be able to do it?

5. All you need to do is set aside time to think and you can generate innovative ideas. It's a more complicated scenario most of the time. "Effective innovation is 50 percent data gathering, 10 percent brainstorming and generative thinking, and 40 percent execution," says Dr. Dave Popple, a corporate psychologist who trains professionals in the realm of strategic thinking. "Anyone can generate ideas, but if they are not rooted in facts and are impossible to execute, they are worthless."

6. Group brainstorming is better than individual generative thinking. "Research overwhelmingly supports the idea that the best ideas come from a process of generating ideas alone first," Popple says, "then sharing them with a group, and then going back to thinking alone to pull the ideas together."

7. It takes a "crazy" person to make innovation happen in a large company. Driven, yes. Crazy, no. The reality of the lone-wolf innovator is often more nuanced, says Bryan Mattimore, co-founder and Chief Idea Guy at The Growth Engine. "Innovation happens when you have a leader who can build consensus and support from different departments," he says, describing a leader who can corral R&D, finance, boards and other entities "within a company to support his or her idea."

8. Consumer research isn't important. "This is ridiculous," Mattimore says. "We do a tremendous amount of qualitative research where we consider consumers or customers as our partners in developing ideas with the features and benefits they want most."

9. Constant innovation equals constant improvement. Any successful athlete knows that every action takes time and resources during an event. And conserving and spending those two assets wisely is often a key difference between victory and defeat. That's an idea echoed by Lauri Flaquer, founder of Saltar Solutions. She warns against "spending so often or so much on innovation that it's a huge and needless drain on the resources of the organization."

10. This new idea will save us! "Not so," Flaquer says, especially "if other companies have taken over the market. Your innovation might not get you back on top or prove profitable."

11. You need an offsite location or retreat to innovate. Here's the problem: Going offsite can create a crutch for creativity. "Innovation away-days may create breakthrough thinking," says Val Wright, leadership innovation expert at Val Wright Consulting, but "if you don’t build innovation into everyday life at your company, you will fail."

12. Only proven success defines an innovative leader. "Multiple failure attempts do not disqualify a leader from being innovative, quite the opposite," Wright says. "Ask any founder of a startup—they will share multiple unsuccessful business ideas and ventures, yet still they attract investors and further rounds of funding. The barrier is not making mistakes, it's learning to become rapidly curious—to consider and commit to making changes as a leader when projects fail."

An underlying concept that runs through the myths we've just considered is that of hard work and steady application. That is, innovation isn't exclusively the realm of extraordinary personalities or ideal conditions. In the real world of business, it's a practice that intertwines with our day-to-day efforts. Learning to innovate in that way is a powerful skill for business leaders and teams.

Read more articles on productivity.

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