Innovation is not a linear process of invent-build-commercialise, and if we act like it is, we will waste a lot of energy building the wrong things. Related Stories - Treating Discovery Like Execution Will Kill Innovation - Here's Your License to ...


Innovation Leadership Network

We Don’t Need More Mousetraps!

Imagine an island country where the only industry is making mousetraps – let’s call it Mousetrapia. And the people that live there are incredibly creative. Consequently, they invent new mousetraps constantly, and they patent them as well. They patent so many mousetraps that the number of patents per capita for Mousetrapians is among the best in the world.

This high level of creativity is due in part to the fantastic higher education system in Mousetrapia. The academics there are the world leaders in researching and publishing work on mousetraps. Just as in patents, their publications per capita rank among the best.

Since startups are an important part of any innovation ecosystem, last year the federal government provided money to start the world’s first MouseTech Accelerator, called The Cheese. On demo day, there were two outstanding teams that got funded. One built the first mousetrap that connects to the Internet of Things, with an app that lets you set your mousetrap from your smartphone, even if you’re nowhere near home. Of course, the MVP version still requires you to load the cheese manually, but it’s a start. The other startup is described as Uber for Mousetraps. It’s a platform that connects people with mousetraps but no mice with those that have mice but no mousetraps. So the startup scene is thriving.

The innovation ecosystem in Mousetrapia looks great!

Except when you look for an impact from all this activity in the Mousetrapian economy. No one is buying any of their mousetraps. They’re building tons of better mousetraps, but the world is definitely not beating a path to their door.

If you ask people what’s wrong, they’ll say: “We’re punching way above our weight in patents, papers and startups. We just need to get better at commercialising things.”

This is not a commercialisation problem.

Could it be that they’re building the wrong things?

The fact of the matter is that the mousetrap problem is pretty comprehensively solved, and it has been since 1894.

All of the Mousetrapian innovation is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Australia is a bit like Mousetrapia. We just had yet another report on the performance of the innovation ecosystem, which, like all the others, concludes that the country is excellent at generating new ideas, but not so good at commercialising them.

This reflects a flawed model of innovation – that it is a linear process. We have the idea, we build it, we sell it. This doesn’t work, and we’ve known this for more than fifty years. Yet still, when we try to make our countries, firms or startups more effective, we fall back on the linear model.

The fact of the matter is that Mousetrapia is not innovative at all. Every bit of their creative energy is going into solving problems that aren’t problems. They’re executing lots of new ideas – they’re awesome at that. But they’re not creating value.

To innovate, we must do all three things: have great ideas, make them real, and create value in doing so.

This is really hard to do if we try to follow a linear model. It’s much better to think of innovation as circular and iterative. We talk to people a bit to understand what problems they’re struggling with, then build something that might help with that to see if it works. And we do this repeatedly until we’ve got something that solves actual problems for real people. This is what is built into the lean startup approach, which is a good method for breaking out of the linear model problems.

When I see stats that show a group of people whose innovation system looks like Mousetrapia’s, I don’t see a commercialisation problem – I see a bunch of people solving the wrong problems.


Here’s a short video that I made that talks about this a bit for an online short course called Ideas to Impact:


Also, it’s an honour to be included on this list of the World’s Most Influential Innovation Blogs. It’s a terrific list, filled with great resources for those of us interested in innovation.


If You Want to Be Innovative, Innovate

act not think

Too many people want to make their organisations more innovative without going through the pain of actually changing anything.

This does not work.

In an interview on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, Jocko Willink says:

If you want to tougher mentally, it is simple: be tougher. Don’t meditate on it.

It’s the same with innovation. If you want to be innovative, it is simple: innovate.

Here are some things that don’t work:

  • Buying the magic innovation software.
  • Bringing someone (like me) in to give an “inspirational talk” on innovation (which is why I don’t do these anymore). A one-day workshop doesn’t work either.
  • Buying a smaller, innovative company to kick-start internal innovation.
  • Building a corporate accelerator that brings in startups to do innovative stuff that’s related to your core business.
  • Outsourcing new product development, customer development, or any of the work that connects what you want to sell to the problem that people need solved.

Ultimately, all of these end up being innovation theatre.

Here is one thing that does work:

  • Try out lots of new ideas to see which ones create value, then scale those.

The problem is that to do this, you have to change the way you act. Which, of course, you must, if you want to be innovative.

There’s no shortcut. That’s why so few organisations are genuinely innovative. To be innovative, you have to innovate.


Here’s Your License to Innovate!

All the Permission You Need

Your Innovation License

The most common barrier to innovation that I hear about in my classes and talks is “But my boss won’t let me.”

Here’s a solution. Print this out, fill it in, and carry it with you at all times. Problem solved!

Your Innovation License

Actually, you don’t even need my permission to innovate – you just need permission from yourself. That’s all you’ve ever needed.

I’m working on an Innovation Decoder Ring and Secret Handshake, but for now, this will do.

Please start trying new stuff.

(Idea swiped from How to Be An Explorer of The World by Keri Smith)


Solvitur ambulando – A Great Creativity Hack

Solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking.

That’s the slogan for Keri Smith’s wonderful book The Wander Society (and here).

Her book is a manifesto for getting out and directly experiencing life through unplanned, mindful wandering.

The Wander Society Manifesto

It’s a great idea.

We need slack in order to have great ideasWandering creates slack – unstructured time in our day. That’s where ideas come from.

Physical activity helps us think better. This study outlines the benefits of walking. That’s just the physical part of it. Smith focuses on not so much on the exercise part, but on engaging directly with your environment as you walk. But in both cases, your thinking improves.

We need to experiment – the second use of Solitur ambulando is: “the problem is solved by a practical experiment.” When we try new things, we often rely on logic to figure out if our idea will work. This usually misguides us. It’s better to test the idea through experiments.

There’s an interesting tension between these two definitions – walking/wandering is open, and not task-based. It’s an oblique approach to engaging with your problem, which is the most effective way to deal with complex systems. Experimenting, on the other hand, is more direct.

To make our ideas work, we need both parts. The open, oblique wandering helps us have the great idea in the first place. The experiments help us figure out how to make the idea work in practice.

In both cases, Solvitur ambulando is a pretty useful creativity hack.

Let’s start walking.


Those That Get It Don’t Need It, and Those That Need It Don’t Get It

An innovation paradox

Here’s a central problem with trying to get any new idea to spread – often, those that get it don’t need it, while those that need it don’t get it.

It’s a paradox.

This leads to problems for people that have new ideas.

Problem 1a: you end up talking to the wrong people. It is easiest to talk to the people that get it – even though they don’t need your idea. Back in my startup days, we often went to First Tuesday in Brisbane to try to build our network. We’d talk to all the other local startups about the problems that we shared, and it was great – they really got it!

Did it help us build our business? No. No, it did not.

We were talking to the people that were easy to talk to – the ones that got it. But they didn’t need what we had built. To grow a business we had to talk to the people that needed our ideas. That was a lot harder. It was frustrating, and difficult. Mainly because:

Problem 1b: you might be solving a problem that people don’t yet realise they have. This problem is the opposite of the first one. This makes it really hard to talk to them, because when they hear your idea, they’ll hate it.

When this happens a lot, you’re in what Seth Godin calls the Gulf of Disapproval:

Here’s what he says:

Start at the left. Your new idea, your proposal to the company, your new venture, your innovation—no one knows about it.

As you begin to promote it, most of the people (the red line) who hear about it don’t get it. They think it’s a risky scheme, a solution to a problem no one has or that it’s too expensive. Or some combination of the three.

They need your idea, but they don’t get it.

The key to solving this paradox is to find the small number of people that will get it and that need it. Even for huge breakthrough ideas, this original group is usually pretty small.

These people are the blue line in Godin’s drawing.

Here is how Steve Blank describes them:

Earlyvangelists are a special breed of customers willing to take a risk on your startup’s product or service. They can actually envision its potential to solve a critical and immediate problem—and they have the budget to purchase it. Unfortunately, most customers don’t fit this profile.

Earlyvangelists can be identified by these characteristics:

  • They have a problem.
  • They understand they have a problem.
  • They are actively searching for a solution and has a timetable for finding it.
  • The problem is painful enough that they have cobbled together an interim solution.
  • They have, or can quickly acquire, dollars to purchase the product to solve their problem.


How do we find these people? We start by building a model of who we think they are, and what we think they need. This model is almost certainly wrong. We fix that by going out and talking to these people to learn about the problems that they are actively trying to solve.

Because we’re trying to identify problems, we’re not pitching during these conversations. We’re learning. If we do that enough times, we’ll figure out what a small group of people really need right now, and, with luck, we can build it for them.

People usually can’t explain what they need, especially if the idea is genuinely new. So you need to look for evidence of problems. In my experience, the sign that we’re really onto something is in Blank’s fourth point – when we find people that have already hacked together a solution of their own. This is strong evidence.

It turns out that our two groups of people aren’t mutually exclusive – there’s a small overlap:

When we have a new idea, our job is to figure out what these people need, who they are, and how to find them. Once we’ve done this, then more people will start to get the idea, and more people will also start to need it.

That’s the only way to cross the Gulf of Disapproval.

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