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The Real Facts of Innovation Life

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

“Men who accomplish great things in the industrial world are the ones who have faith in the money producing power of ideas,” said Charles Fillmore.  Ideas change things and can change the world.  In business the perpetual hunt is for something unique, a development, a leap ahead of the competition.   Innovate or die!

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  The trouble is that some of the universally acknowledged facts of innovation life are troubling – sometimes plain wrong.  So, here are the real facts of innovation life:

It is very difficult. All the talk of light bulb moments and having inspiration in the bath are delusional.  For the most part, innovation requires attention to detail, slavish devotion to an idea, blind hope and a lot of hard work. “One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea,” observed the British writer Walter Bagehot. Walter was right.

Ideas are routinely killed.  Humankind is intolerant and often unkind.  If the bright boy in marketing who you never really liked has an amazing idea which could transform the world and make the boy into the new Steve Jobs, you are unlikely to be pleased. You never liked him!  So, you will do everything in your power to kill the idea.  The thing is that ideas, especially in their fledgling state, are easily destroyed. They are delicate as bone china. Raise your eyebrow at the killer moment and the idea is dead in the water.

What we have may be good enough. There is an appetite for revolution.  People want a completely new way of doing things, a brand spanking new product.  It is exciting to sit around and talk about innovations. Wild and wacky ideas make tedious meetings come alive.  But, what if the way you do things, the product you have, the service you offer is actually pretty good and only needs a tweak or two to bring it up to scratch?  Changing things slightly is still innovation. Throwing out the baby with the bath water is tempting but destroying what exists and is understood by people may be a risk too far.  Adding another plastic duck to the bath water is cheaper and may do the trick.

Originality is over-rated. Ferran Adrià became head chef of El Bulli at the age of 25. One might assume that he spent his earliest years in his family’s kitchen watching his parents or grandparents cook and learning from them, but that assumption is far from the truth. Adrià, born in 1962 in a suburb of Barcelona, had no particular interest in cooking in his youth. In fact, at 14 he began his studies of business administration; four years later, he left school out of boredom.

In his book, Ferran Adrià: The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat, Coleman Andrews explains that while serving in the Spanish Navy, Adrià was a member of the captain general’s kitchen staff before being put in full charge of a kitchen. Once in that post, he was chosen to cook for an admiral, which gave him the opportunity to make meals for cabinet ministers and, on one occasion, even the King of Spain. During that time, he also befriended a man who helped him land a job at El Bulli, a restaurant that, with two Michelin stars, was already on the map. While there, Adrià and others on his culinary team toured the world’s best restaurants to learn about other ways to prepare food.

Adrià learned well, becoming El Bulli’s head chef in 1987. Later, with a partner, he bought the restaurant. After that, it did not take long for Adrià to become a culinary star. He introduced a new form of cooking, frequently referred to as ‘molecular gastronomy’. It’s a term he loathes, preferring to call his technique ‘deconstruction’. Adrià has written a number of books; in one, he defines his approach to preparing food as “taking a dish that is well known and transforming all its ingredients or part of them; then modifying the dish’s texture, form and/or its temperature. Deconstructed, such a dish will preserve its essence … but its appearance will be radically different from the original’s.” Innovation is such a dish.

There are very few new ideas under the innovation sun.  Accept it and move on. You are unlikely to split the atom but you may well come up with a newish sounding name for a cleaning product.

Ideas breed. “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas,” said Dr. Linus Pauling, the American chemist, pacifist and champion of Vitamin C. More prosaically, John Steinbeck observed: “Ideas are like rabbits.  You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” The more ideas you have, the more ideas you have.  The hard bit is figuring out which are the best ideas and which are the duds.

This was brought home to us when we met one of the best chefs in London, the Cinnamon Club CEO and executive chef, Vivek Singh. The Cinnamon Club is situated near the Palace of Westminster in a building that was previously Westminster Public Library. Singh has been the culinary driving force behind the Cinnamon brand since it was launched.

He reinvented Indian cuisine, offering a range of groundbreaking dishes that used the best ingredients available in London in traditional Indian recipes. Once the restaurant was a success, Singh could have paused for breath and enjoyed the plaudits. Instead, he decided to change the menu every day. The bar was raised.

“One of the older guys that I’d hired locally came to me and said, ‘Chef, it’s none of my business, but with all due respect, you’ve got to be careful with what you’re doing. You’re putting everything out; one day you’ll run out of ideas, and then there’ll be no value. And they’ll get rid of you. You’re young, you’re enthusiastic, I totally respect all of that, but you don’t need to change menus every day,’” Singh told us.

He thought differently. “Actually, the more you create, the more ideas you have. Whenever we meet, we often talk about it, and he says, ‘You were right. By creating new dishes, you never run out of ideas; you come up with more new ones.’ And I think that’s what we found, and our team finds as well. The challenge now is to meet expectations. Today, commercial success is also on the agenda as part of those expectations. We are constantly innovating, never standing still.”

Innovation is the starting point. There is the temptation to sit back and admire your own brilliance. The trouble is that all innovations require legions of people to make them happen, to convert the idea into profits. An idea is the start, the hard work starts immediately. “Ideas must work through the brains and arms of men, or they are no better than dreams,” said no less than Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Innovation isn’t the monopoly of high-tech start-ups in Silicon Valley. Indeed, it is not the preserve of small companies at all.  

We suggested to Nilofer Merchant (author of Onlyness) that the era of big corporations being innovative was past.  Her reaction was quick.  “I know a lot of people would like to say they are. I don’t think so,” she said.  “People say old companies can’t innovate, and small companies are more inventive. That argument is both old and wrong. Joseph Schumpeter, the noted economist, said — in, I believe it was 1909 — that small companies were more inventive than large ones. But then, in 1942, Schumpeter reversed himself and argued that big companies had more ability and incentive to invest in new products. A look at any performance measure shows that innovation can come from either size, and that both arguments are oversimplifications.

The key for every firm — regardless of size — is to figure out how to consistently create value in a demanding, ever-changing market. That is hard no matter what size you are, no matter what industry you’re in.”

Get out more is the best innovation advice.  Few innovations begin life with someone sitting in their safe and sturdy office chair contemplating the view they have been looking at for ten years with an office full of the same colleagues. Innovation comes from getting out there, talking to customers, meeting people from other disciplines and so on. Get out more.

“When you talk to somebody in a large organization about how a great new innovation has actually happened, when you peel back the layers of the story, what you don’t find is a load of clever people sitting around a boardroom table strategizing their way to the end. It just doesn’t happen like that,” Matt Kingdon of What If?! told us. “It’s much more a story about people who bump into each other, who have random chance meetings or seemingly chance meetings. Their head is in the right space. They have the right attitude. They’re asking the right questions. They say things like, ‘Let’s work on a Saturday’, or, ‘What do you mean by that?’ They’re not shooting people down. They’re not cutting people off. It’s a combination of the right people, right place, right attitude, and right behavior; that’s the real story of innovation.”

We could, of course, add a few more wrinkles, some complications to this simple recipe for innovation. But, why not keep it simple for once? Try it.


Matt Kingdon, The Science of Serendipity, Wiley, 2013

Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Riverhead Books, 2010.

David Burkus, The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas, Jossey-Bass, 2013.

This was originally published in What we mean when we talk about innovation by Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove (Infinite Ideas, 2016).

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