Innovation Takes Effort

How Hard Should You Push?

I’m on a flight home from Denver, my mind twirling over a contradiction. A conversation I had sparked a question: does innovation pull or push?

For years I have believed innovation is a “pull” activity. You put something out into the world and if it is something the world needs, the market pulls it into being. You do something that resonates with what people want and it catches fire.

This is the frame from which I have been building Outthinker. We test ideas and concepts, see what makes people’s eyes light up, and then go where that energy takes us. You can’t force onto the market what it doesn’t want.

But maybe innovation is a “push” activity. Steve Jobs certainly pushed. Supposedly, when designing the very first iPod, his engineer said, “It has to have an on/off switch.” Jobs replied, “No, it doesn’t.” He didn’t go with the flow. He challenged it.

Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, was once frustrated that the mainframes in the new building they had moved into were not yet operating. When his employee explained the technicians had not yet arrived to install the cables, Ellison pulled out a hammer, banged a hole in the wall, reached in, pulled out cables, and handed them to the employee.

Great innovators hammer holes into walls. They don’t wait for doors to open.

They don’t just wait for the universe to pull their innovation into existence – they push.

Maybe I’ve been approaching this challenge of building Outthinker from the wrong perspective. I’ve been waiting for pull when I should be pushing. I should be investing more in sales and marketing, more effort in getting our message out.

Then it occurred to me. I’ve already resolved this dilemma. In my third book, The Way of Innovation, I studied the path of great innovations and found they map remarkably well to an ancient framework for change. Every new company, product, social innovation I studied went through five phases:

  1. Discontent: Someone recognizes the current system is stuck
  2. Imagination: The innovators start speaking about a different future/possibility
  3. Formation: They invest great effort in assembling the elements needed to launch the innovation
  4. Break-Out: The innovation suddenly takes off … like a wildfire
  5. Consolidation: The innovator then protects the innovation, consolidating the gains

During the Break-Out phase (phase 4), the market pulls your innovation. Innovation is a pull exercise.

But to get there, you need to pass through Formation (phase 3). You need to push. Now our innovation hero stories are almost all about the Break-Out phase, the entrepreneur who – aw, gosh – just had this idea, and the world took notice and pulled it into being. We like to think this is how Microsoft or Facebook or Uber came to be. The brilliant idea that fit like a key to unlock a market.

But just to get that key into the door takes great effort. You have to push it in. You have to build awareness, get the right message, gather production capabilities, build credibility, grow your pipeline, define your processes. During this phase you are investing lots of energy but seeing few results. You are winding up the spring, pulling the bow, charging the battery. Lots of energy in, little energy out.

But if you have the fortitude to keep pushing, knowing that the negative feedback the market is giving you is not a signal that your idea is flawed but that you are simply on the innovation path, pushing through the Formation phase, you will break through on the other side. The world will take notice … and they will say, “He did it effortlessly.”