Optimize the Conditions for Great Innovations

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 11, Issue No. 1
April, 2012

By Dan Coughlin



Recently I read the books Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King. Turns out they were the same story. They both told the story of innovation.

Without the ability to innovate an organization will eventually be left behind and will degenerate. This is true in every industry, every country, every for-profit organization, and every not-for-profit organization.

I like to define words before digging into the details. To me, innovation means creating greater value for other people, delivering it through a better experience for them, and basing decisions on a deep understanding of what they really need. The purpose of innovating is to help your organization achieve better sustainable success. You do that by consistently creating greater value for other people and improving the way in which you deliver that value.

In this article, I will explain a variety of the conditions that increase your chances for creating and delivering great innovations, the kind that really make a difference for your desired customers. At the end of each condition is a question to help you clarify whether or not you are meeting that condition.

Condition #1 for Innovating: Define the parameters you will innovate within.

You can’t do it all. I know that’s an obvious thing to say, but when a business needs to deliver a good result every quarter sometimes the low-hanging fruit can look tempting, even though it’s not at all related to what you want your business to focus on. Without realizing it, you can end up with people throughout your organization working on all kinds of things in the hopes to generate some short-term cash. The problem is that approach rarely creates meaningful innovations.

Even when he was painting the 12,000 square feet of ceiling space in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo knew he still had a defined space to work within. It was a big project, but it had parameters. Even when Apple expanded its strategy to focus on The Digital Lifestyle, it still had a defined area to work within. It didn’t go off and build plastic toys for children or reinvent the assisted living industry.

By defining the boundaries for your innovations, you are also defining what you are not going to do. This is a critically important condition. Without it, you will be tempted to dive into every type of product or service that you might be paid for. It would be like a kid wanting to earn extra spending money and so he sets up a lemonade stand for a week and then mows lawns for a week and then watches people’s dogs for a week. It’s hard to really become great at anything if you constantly change it.

What are the parameters you are going to innovate within?

Condition #2 for Innovating: Develop an improvement mindset.

In my opinion, a great book is both simple and powerful. Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, is an example of a great book. She focuses her attention on a simple concept: whether a person has a fixed mindset or a growth mindset will greatly impact his or her future behaviors.

She wrote, “The growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts…Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

If you have a fixed mindset, you are unlikely to create a great innovation. Innovations are messy. They don’t always look good. They require the old “try, try, try again” approach. If you believe that every attempt is an opportunity to learn something that can be used in a future attempt, you will likely hang in there when others might not. You will see each step as being valuable because it will help you to improve. If you have a fixed mindset, the messiness can feel overwhelming. You might feel that if what you know right now is all you are ever going to know than you might as well not embarrass yourself any further.

How can you get better at creating the innovation you are working on?

Condition #3 for Innovating: Know that the lone genius is pure mythology.

Here are two fairly common myths: Steve Jobs invented the first personal computer and Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel by himself while lying on his back. They sound good, but they aren’t true. The Apple I was formalized by Steve Wozniak, but even his efforts were based on numerous conversations within The Homebrew Computer Club and fueled by the January 1975 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine. Michelangelo didn’t lay on his back and he didn’t paint the chapel by himself. He recruited a team of people to paint the chapel as a team project. He organized them into sections and outlined the work they needed to do. Parts of the project he painted by himself, but not all of it.

When Jim Skinner announced he was retiring as the CEO of McDonald’s, the headline at forbes.com stated, “McDonald’s Innovative CEO Sets Retirement Date, Names Successor.” At age 67 and in his forty-first year as a McDonald’s employee, why was Jim Skinner suddenly being called “innovative”? The reason is because under his watch from November 2004 to March 2012, McDonald’s came out with a series of successful innovations including new looks for the restaurants and the McCafe. However, Skinner didn’t come up with all of these innovations on his own, nor did he execute them on his own. He created an environment where innovations had a chance to gain momentum from the efforts of lots of people.

Recently I facilitated a meeting where eight senior executives debated the topic of whether a group of people are always smarter than any individual. Is it true that eight people discussing a topic will always come up with a better idea than a single person, or is true that one individual could have a better idea than the eight people can come up with by bouncing their ideas around the table?

In the end, we landed on the idea that any one of the individuals in the group might have the best idea at any given moment, but we wouldn’t know which person had the best idea unless we let each person share his or her insights. Sometimes a great idea is the synthesis of two ideas that were stated by different people in the group. However sometimes one person in the group will come up with the best idea. However, what is least likely to be true is that the same person will always have the best idea in the group. That is the mythology of the lone genius. Don’t allow yourself to fall into that category. I encourage you to read Chapter Five in the book, The Art of Innovation, by Tom Kelley.

What insights are you gaining from other people?

Condition #4 for Innovating: Practice in a deliberate manner over a long period of time. (A salute to Anders Ericsson)

Over the past several years I’ve read a variety of interesting books on high performers including Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Bounce by Matthew Syed, and The Genius In All of Us by David Shenk. Their messages were remarkable similar: that great performance is primarily generated by purposeful effort rather than innate talent. They all referred to the idea of the 10,000-hour rule, which refers to the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of purposeful effort to truly master any skill.

The other thing these four books had in common is they all based their comments on the work of Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University. Anders Ericsson is practically a national treasure and yet very few people know of him because his work focuses on learning about expert performance rather than on promoting Anders Ericsson. He has spent virtually his entire career studying how extraordinary performers reach their pinnacles of success. He has studied memory experts (You might want to read the new book, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer), pianists, military leaders, medical doctors, and a wide range of other great performers. In the end, he found repeatedly that the greatest performers developed themselves through what he calls “deliberate practice” over a period of 10,000 hours.

To develop a truly great innovation, you need to actually work at the details of the product or service. You need to work to understand the needs of your customers better. You need to work to deliver the product or service in a way that is better for your customer. Look at your efforts in all of these areas as a series of practices or training sessions where each one is preparing you to become even better at creating a great innovation. Learn from every one of them and continually compile your ideas toward making something magnificent.

How are you continually practicing the skills you need to create your desired innovation?

Condition #5 for Innovating: Avoid the futility of avoiding failure.

In 1995, the film, Apollo 13, first hit the big screens. Two phrases from that film have lived on: “Houston, we have a problem.” and “Failure is not an option.” In that scenario, failure would have meant that astronauts died and so the phrase made sense in that context. Over the last fifteen years, I have heard “failure is not an option” in countless meetings where people’s lives were not at stake, but as so often happens a phrase from a film got embedded in society and we accepted it as the absolute truth.

Let me clarify. In business, failure is always an option. In your attempt to create greater value for your customers and deliver it through a better experience, you might fail. People might not like it. They might not buy it. They might get angry and say bad things about your organization. If you’re not ok with that, then you truly do have a problem, which is you are highly unlikely to ever create something of great value. Do your very best, make the very best product or service that you can, deliver it as well as you can, and then be okay with the response. Whether it’s loved or hated, you can learn something from the experience and apply that something in the future to make an even better product or service.

Another great book (remember: simple and powerful) is The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. He uses a variety of examples to show why highly successful companies tend to lose their momentum. In essence, they stop innovating. They don’t want to risk sabotaging one of the successful products or services they developed in the past by developing a more innovative product or service in the future. Instead they let somebody else pass them by. In other words, they fail as an organization because they want to avoid failing.

Are you ok if your innovation is not successful? Are you okay if your new innovation wipes out your old innovation? If not, then you’re going to have a problem.

Condition #6 for Innovating: Create a crisis if you need one.

Crises can be wonderful things. They can stir successful companies to new heights of focus and attention and innovation. They can get people to work together who could barely speak to one another during good times. They can force people to make decisions and get on with the business of making significantly better products and services.

Question: what do you do when you are not in a crisis? Answer: make one.

Create a crisis by hyping the importance of a deadline, by praising the competition and all they are doing to advance past your team, and by talking about the historic mark your organization can achieve and the legacy it will leave behind if only it would become more urgent. I’m not talking about beating people up or wearing them down. I’m talking about increasing the sense of urgency in the organization to continually become all that it is capable of being. Talk about how every day matters because it might be the day you develop a breakthrough idea for your customers.

It’s nice to talk about putting action items in an “important, but not urgent” bucket. The problem is they tend to stay in that bucket. You need to create a sense of urgency in the absence of emergency. You need to believe that you absolutely, positively need to focus today on finding some insight to improve your product or service or otherwise your whole organization might collapse. If your organization, your work group, your career, your family, and your life depended on you creating a product or service that delivered greater value to your desired customers in a more effective way for them, would you get started today? You need to have that sense of urgency regarding innovations every day.

How can you increase your team’s sense of urgency?

Condition #7 for Innovating: Be willing to stop and start over.

Two of my favorite stories about Steve Jobs and Michelangelo are when they brought their innovations to a complete halt. Steve Jobs bought Pixar Animation Studios in January 1986 and funded it for a period of ten years with no profits. Zero. Zilch. Every quarter was a losing quarter. But he, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter had a dream of creating the first-ever computer generated feature-length film. They named the film, Toy Story. After two years of effort, it became painfully clear to John Lasseter and Steve Jobs that the script needed to be rewritten. The characters needed to be friendlier. Jobs continued to pour his own money into the project even though it would now take two more years to complete.

Michelangelo was given a fixed amount of money to paint the Sistine Chapel. From that money he had to hire his assistants and purchase the paint, brushes, plaster, and scaffolding to complete the project. He began on May 10, 1508. After a great deal of effort in painting the scene called The Flood, he and his team members realized something was terribly wrong in January 1509 when they saw a fungus appear on their paintings. In the end, they realized they had put the plaster on the wall when it was too wet. Michelangelo realized that nothing great would be created if he continued on. Consequently, he ordered his employees to scrape the plaster off the wall and to start all over again.

Great innovators have the guts to say, “We made a mistake. We need to stop and start over.” How embarrassing and frustrating and costly that must have been for Steve Jobs and Michelangelo. Yet they did it over and over again. Near the launch of the original iPad, Jobs realized that he and the other team members had made a mistake. They needed the glass to go all the way to the edge. So they halted the project and redid the glass. And the rest is history.

Are you willing to start your project over again when you realize there is a better path? If not, don’t innovate.

Condition #8 for Innovating: Understand the importance of passion.

In August 1990 I returned to the high school I attended to be an Algebra I teacher. My degree was in Mechanical Engineering and I had taken Calculus IV and Differential Equations. I had the technical knowledge to teach Algebra I and I had an ability to explain ideas in a way that other people could understand them. The problem was I had zero passion for math. I just didn’t care about the Quadratic Equation. I didn’t care to dig into the details of the subject to learn it better. I liked teaching and I liked the students, but I didn’t care about my subject. Consequently, I never improved as a math teacher over the next seven and a half years. I taught math exactly the same way on my last day as I did on my first day even though there had been significant advances of the graphing calculator during my tenure. I was competent, but I never improved. My passion was learning ideas on how people achieved great successes. So at every opportunity I went to the school library with a book in my hand about how individuals and organizations achieved great successes. I wrote down every good idea I could find.

Sitting four feet away from me in the math department office was Tom Becvar, my former high school teacher, the chairman of the math department, and a true teacher extraordinaire. Tom taught the BC Calculus course. He had been a great teacher for twenty years when I arrived. Yet he still worked at understanding the details of every problem before he taught them to his students. He went on to develop innovative ways to teach Calculus. He taught other high school teachers how to teach Calculus. He became a nationally respected advisor on the AP Calculus tests. He was named High School National Teacher of the Year by several organizations. Many adults today in the St. Louis area will say Tom Becvar is the greatest teacher they ever had. Tom was my mentor. He taught me a great deal about how to be a teacher.

What was the difference between us? I had taken math courses far beyond high school math. I could explain information well to other people. I liked being with the students. The difference was our passions. Tom loved math. I loved learning and teaching ideas on improving individual and organizational performance. In 1991 I created a week-long course for high school students called The Adventure of Life Course. It was about strengthening self-confidence and self-esteem. That course laid the groundwork for the business I eventually created in 1998. Ultimately, our passions took us down two different paths.

To be a great innovator, you have to truly care about the products and services you are creating. You have to be over-the-top passionate about the value you are creating for other people. If you don’t passionately care about what you are doing, how can you possibly expect your customers to care?

In 1997, upon his return to Apple, Steve Jobs said, “Marketing is about values. Apple at its core value believes that people with passion can change the world for the better.” Steve Jobs’s passion and the passion of Apple has always been to democratize great electronic technology. He wanted simple, great tools in the hands of as many people as possible so they could go and do what they were passionate about.

I’ve attended meetings at Anheuser-Busch InBev where senior-level engineers stood together with passion as they studied how the lids were sealed on precisely to the cans in order to maintain the quality of the beer. I’ve been at McDonald’s meetings where McDonald’s corporate staff members and owner/operators studied intensely the exact positioning of a fry station so that it would optimize the speed with which customers were served. I’ve sat in Toyota meetings where Finance & Insurance Managers would huddle together to figure out the simplest way for the customers to understand the details of a leasing or loan agreement. I have facilitated meetings with Marriott employees where they were engaged in intense conversations about how to provide more effective leadership for their associates. Great companies have people who care about the value they are creating for other people. They get emotional over the details. They have a Tom Becvar-like passion for what they do and how they can do it better.

Do you really care about the product or service you are creating for other people? If not, is there someone else in your organization who is passionate about this project? If not, don’t go after this innovation.


Innovating sounds so sexy and glamorous. It sounds refreshing and exciting. The reality is innovating is work, really, really hard work. You have to be passionate and purposeful and committed. You have to look at every setback as a learning experience, not as a defining moment. You have to persevere beyond anything that you used to think was reasonable. You will have to observe people for a ridiculous amount of time until you really understand what they truly need.

But in the end innovating is how you will make the world a better place and your life a better existence. And that is why it is worth it.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at dan@thecoughlincompany.com with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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