7 Innovation Myths and Realities

By Rieva LesonskyBusiness on Main

Do you think the greatest innovators are first to market? Or that true innovation is too risky for small businesses? We debunk some of the biggest myths about innovation.

Continue Reading Below

Do you believe innovation always comes in a flash of inspiration? Do you assume great innovators work alone? Well, you’re wrong. “[Myths like these] may make it easier for our brains to comprehend innovation, but believing them is kind of like believing in magic,” says Braden Kelley, an innovation speaker and trainer and co-founder of Innovation Excellence. In fact, warns Kelley, falling for these myths can keep you from turning a promising idea into a valuable innovation.

Here’s the truth about seven of the most common innovation myths.

Myth 1: Inspiration comes in a flash. “Everyone’s heard about Newton and the apple, or Archimedes and the bathtub, and assumes that innovation arrives in a flash of brilliance. It's not so,” says Kelley, the author of “Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire.”

Tip: Don’t expect a “Eureka moment” to fall in your lap. Insight may come, but expect to work hard for it. “There’s always a lot of inspiration, investigation, ideation and iteration before you arrive at that moment,” Kelley says, “and a lot of implementation, illumination and installation work to be done afterwards to turn a brilliant invention into a widely adopted innovation.”

Myth 2: Your idea has to be groundbreaking. “If you dig up the history of most successful companies, you'll find there were many competitors chasing the same idea,” says Scott Berkun, best-selling author of “The Myths of Innovation.” “Ford wasn’t the only company making cars. Apple wasn’t the only company making digital music players. The winning difference was their ability to execute, and focus on decisions that mattered most to customers.”

Tip: “The greatest asset a business owner can have is a clear eye for understanding customers and studying their biggest problems and frustrations,” says Berkun. “Don't worry about ideas that feel big. Worry instead about ideas that solve your customers’, or your competitor's customers’, biggest complaints and frustrations.” Develop those solutions and you just might find yourself labeled a “breakthrough innovator” after all.

Myth 3: Innovation is all about products. “There are many types of innovation, including service innovation, business model innovation and design thinking,” says Chuck Frey, founder of InnovationManagement and InnovationTools, an online resource for innovation, creativity and brainstorming. “I recommend that small-business owners broaden their views of what innovation is, and how and where it can be employed in their organizations.”

Tip: Stop focusing on creating “cool products” and start looking around your business for ways to streamline your processes, modify your customer service, update your business model, create better packaging or change your delivery channels.

Myth 4: Great innovators work alone. Whether it’s Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell, “we love the romantic idea of the lone innovator,” Kelley says, “but history tells a different story. Innovation is a team sport — how many people work at Apple?”

Tip: Take a cue from the so-called “lone innovators” (like Bell and Edison, who built commercial labs to pursue their innovations) and surround yourself with people who possess the skills you lack. With a strong team behind you, you’ll stand a far better chance of making your innovation a success.

Myth 5: You’ve got to innovate fast. “People assume that being fast to market with a potential innovation is a determining factor in its success,” says Kelley. “In fact, most great innovations have taken 20 or 30 years from the point of invention to wide adoption.”

Tip: “Don’t rush to commercialization just because [you] have created something of value,” warns Kelley. “Innovation is all about value, and value creation is just one component.” Often, he says, you must spend even more time on value access (making it easy for people to obtain the innovation) and value translation (explaining the innovation’s value) in order to launch a successful innovation.

Myth 6: Innovation is too risky for my business. Yes, failed innovations can be costly for small businesses. “One big product failure can literally kill a small company,” says Frey. “There’s no margin for error.” On the other hand, he asks, “What’s the alternative? Do nothing and maintain the status quo until your competitors leave you in the dust?”

Tip: To lessen your risk, Frey suggests taking a portfolio approach. “A venture capitalist knows only one out of every 10 startups in which he invests will eventually be profitable, but he doesn’t know which one,” Frey explains. “So the VC invests incrementally in each firm, gradually redeploying funds as some of the startups flame out and steadily investing more money in the most promising ideas — without having to bet the farm on any one of them.” Apply this strategy to your portfolio of ideas, and you can nurture the most promising ones while minimizing risk.

Myth 7: I can’t afford to innovate. If you think your small business lacks the money and manpower to innovate, you’re suffering from a fundamental misunderstanding of innovation. “Innovation doesn’t have to be a disruptive, game-changing initiative,” Frey says. “Pursuing incremental innovation helps you grow without taking on unnecessary risk. In fact, having resource constraints often forces you to be more creative.”

Tip: If you’re short on manpower, consider hiring college students to help, using crowdsourcing to invite outsiders to contribute ideas, or partnering with other small businesses. “If you want to be innovative, you can,” Frey says, “no matter what the size of your firm and the resource constraints you may face.”

Remember: “The magic of innovation happens in completely different ways — a collaborative way, a systematic way,” says Kelley. “This means there’s hope for all of us.”

? Business on Main. Sign up for our Main Street Authority newsletter to get articles like this delivered monthly to your inbox.