The first time I saw my mom throw pasta at the fridge to see if it stuck, I thought I was witnessing a minor miracle. Moms were always good for that sort of thing. Never mind that her pasta turned out like mush. What can I say; the woman couldn’t cook for beans.
Still, what was once a cool culinary trick for making starchy spaghetti has become a surprisingly good model for entrepreneurial and business success. I’d even go as far as to say that, the day you stop throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks is the day you stop innovating.
Without a doubt, the number one enemy of companies and careers alike is day-to-day inertia. Once you start getting fat, dumb, and happy off the status quo, it’s only a matter of time before your competition eats you alive. It’s the rule of competitive markets. They’re zero-sum games.
We sort of live, eat, and breathe that philosophy in the high-tech industry. We learned long ago that if we don’t cannibalize our own products by periodically coming up with something new and better, our competitors will. And that, my friends, is always a recipe for disaster.
Just look at Apple (AAPL). Never mind that the Silicon Valley juggernaut came up with blockbusters like the iPod, iPhone, MacBook Air, and iPad. Just three years since the iPad launched and the stock gets crushed because everyone thinks Apple’s lost its innovative mojo.
Contrast that with Sony (SNE), H-P (HPQ), BlackBerry (BBRY), and Nokia (NOK) – companies that really have lost the recipe for coming up with ideas that stick; the smallest glimmer of hope and their share price doubles. That’s because the smart money knows how volatile and fragile this innovation game can be.
Now, let me see if I can blow your mind the way my mom did in our tiny little kitchen back in Brooklyn. Some of the most successful ideas – products that remade entire competitive landscapes and the fortunes of companies and their leaders – weren’t revolutionary inventions at all. Think about it.
MP3 players had been around forever before Apple came out with iPod and iTunes. The same is true of smartphones and tablets. And yet, those particular products were the ones that really made those categories pop. How did that happen? As it turns out, innovation isn’t always about inventing a whole new category, but looking at an existing category in a different way.
In my experience, that’s always been the biggest pitfall for executives and business leaders. They get trapped by their own preconceived notions of how they do things or how things have to be.
Funny thing is, they create those traps all by themselves. All they have to do to break out is to ensure that they don’t become victims of their own status quos. Here are the three best ways I know to do that:
Don’t succumb to the evils of yes-men and groupthink. Surround yourself with smart people with diverse backgrounds and encourage them to always speak their minds. After all, you don’t hire them and pay them beaucoup bucks to stand around and look good. You pay them to tell you the cold hard truth no matter what.
Don’t wall yourself off in an ivory tower. When I started my career with Texas Instruments a million years ago, the company was proud of its open door policy. Hard to believe that was revolutionary. And yet, to this day, companies that swear by the same policy wall their executives off in ivory towers. I see it all the time.
Have a process for throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Every company I know that’s stood the test of time and withstood decades of competitive onslaught has homegrown processes for ensuring that its key executives get to shake things up, do some brainstorming, and gain some perspective.
One more thing. Don’t listen to what all the gluten free people say. Pasta’s good food. Just don’t overcook it. Remember, al dente.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.