Where does Radical Game Changing Innovation come From?


Innovation MK II by Paul Hocksenar

Probably my favorite business article of all time was an article about collaboration from Inc. Magazine (from several years ago.)  The article was called “The Idiocy of Crowds” and the sub-heading declared, “Collaboration is the hottest buzzword in business today.  Too bad it doesn’t work.”  The reason the article has stuck with me is because the truth of it is readily apparent.  The more people there are in a group or a network, the more negativity bias there is, and the more likely innovative ideas will be shot down or diluted by conservative thinking.

Collaboration yields safe ideas, ideas that have been well filtered and their potential problems thoroughly analyzed.  It is not conducive to bold, game-changing ideas that are so radical that they would never survive this collaborative filtering process.

I was thinking of this the other day when I saw a new article in Fast Company Magazine that talked about the team that collaborated on the ipod.  What I had heard (and what I suspect to be true) is that the ipod was not really a product of collaboration.  In fact, it came out of Steve Jobs’ vision and his somewhat dictatorial management style.  Which brings me to the first place I think innovation comes from:

1.  Innovation comes from a single individual who has the power and authority to make his vision a reality in spite of what the majority thinks.

In my own career in the hospitality industry, this is what I have seen:  Isadore Sharp making his vision of the highest quality hotels a reality, Ian Schraeger creating a whole new category of boutique hotels, and Barry Sternlicht, former CEO of Starwood creating the Heavenly Bed and revolutionizing the way the hotel industry thinks of bedding.

But there is a new type of collaboration now which does seem to be fostering a different kind of innovation.  Web 2.0, open source technologies, crowdsourcing, and open design are all new ways of collaborating that are leading to some pretty spectacular game changers.  Which leads me to number 2:

2. Innovation comes from groups of passionate people who have a platform to share information, combine ideas, test innovations and learn from each other’s failures and successes.

Wikipedia is an example of a radical game changer which is created by a small percentage of its most passionate users.  Listen to Charles Leadbetter’s TED talk on “professional amateurs,” which gives the example (among others) of how mountain bikes were created by cycling enthusiasts in Northern California decades before the big manufacturers realized that they would one day make up the dominant share of the bicycle market.

And my third pathway to innovation is inspired by another TED talk.  Designer Stefan Sagmeister talked about the value of time off, and shared his strategy for shaving 5 of his retirement years off the end of his life and interspersing them into his working life so that he would take one year off for every 7 years of working.  He has found these sabbaticals to be critical to his creativity and virtually all of his design ideas that he worked on for the past seven years originated during his one year of rest.

3.  Innovation comes from a still and rested mind.

I have always believed (from my work in the spa industry,) that one of the greatest aspects of the value of a spa experience is spending some time in silence, separated from technology.  Personally, I find that after spending an hour in silence, either in a spa treatment, or simply meditating quietly, I find new insights, new perspectives, new solutions to problems, and new ideas.

The three pathways to innovation are only my theories, and I have no research to back them up.  In my own life and career, when I have seen radical, game-changing innovation take place, it usually fits into one of these categories.  I would love for you to help me validate, test, or challenge these theories.  Where do you think innovation comes from?

References and recommended reading:

Murray, D. K. (2009).  Borrowing Brilliance: The Six Steps to Business Innovation by Building on the Ideas of Others.  New York: Gotham Books.

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25 Responses to Where does Radical Game Changing Innovation come From?

  1. Rianna December 14, 2010 at 11:17 am #

    Jeremy, great blog and your theories are right on spot! You constantly amaze me!

  2. Mark A McKenney December 14, 2010 at 11:31 am #

    You say that “I have no research to back them up.” Well, if you look back to your 3rd point on innovation (“Innovation comes from a still and rested mind”) you would have thousands of years of buddhist and other Eastern philosopers’ writings to confirm this….
    Dallas, Texas

  3. Lisa Sansom December 14, 2010 at 12:05 pm #

    This reminds me of work by Clayton Christensen: http://www.claytonchristensen.com/disruptive_innovation.html. Actually, it reminds me of what someone told me about his work – I haven’t actually read it directly! 🙂 His work may be more organizational in nature, while you are looking at the originating seeds, but it may be another area of interest for you?
    All the best!

  4. Jeremy McCarthy December 14, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    Thanks Lisa, I have seen some info on the idea of disruptive technologies and disruptive innovations. That is definitely what I am trying to get at when I say “radical, game changing innovation.” There are other kinds of innovations that are more general improvements that happen all the time without the unique conditions that I describe above (“everyday innovations?”) But I am wondering about those disruptive innovations that really create a new product category or change the way we live in a whole new way (mountain bikes, Google, Wikipedia, ipod/ipad are all examples.) Thanks for sharing that link, it looks like it has lots of good resources on it!

  5. Marie-Josee Shaar December 14, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

    SO agree with the rested mind comment – most people get their best ideas in the shower, on their bikes, while taking a walk or on vacation. I believe that’s key!

  6. Rebecca December 14, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    This is wonderful information. Thank you for posting about this.

  7. Dan Bowling December 15, 2010 at 10:24 am #

    I will leave your third point to the others to comment upon, but as to the first two, as a refugee from corporate America I cannot emphasize how right you are.The current, consultant-driven mania to force unnatural “teams” to “collaborate” ends up with watered down ideas, petty politics, and mediocrity (remember “New Coke?” – product of a team). To your second, I also agree. Innovation comes from individuals who share a community of interests (positive psychology, for example) but have the flexibility to come together without formal bureaucratic structure when ideas need testing, input, or support. This is a model I think many of this reader board endorse.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy December 15, 2010 at 8:45 pm #

    Thanks Dan, And imagine how much more innovation could come out of positive psychology and even other branches of social science research if scientific information were truly open. Rather than having select research studies published in particular journals where access is restricted imagine if all research (significant findings or not, peer reviewed or not) were all published to one massive database. From that database they could be peer reviewed by other scientists but also commented on by laypeople from the public and linked to other research. The more I study the science, the more I realize how limited we are by not allowing research to flow along open source channels (like Wikipedia.) Writing this blog I have become a big fan of Wikipedia which serves as a constant resource for me and so I have donated to their cause and even put a widget alongside my blog to encourage others to do the same.

    I will have an article coming out on these challenges with the way research information is managed in our society in the weeks to come. I think it will be called “Why Blogs are better than Research” and will talk about the interconnectedness of blogs and other web 2.0 tools are missing from our research data publishing. When the flow of scientific knowledge is restricted our entire civilization suffers.

    In spite of my rant (as I step off my soapbox) I agree with your comments and a big part of why I started this blog is to tap into the wonderful people (like you!) in the positive psychology community that are open to sharing and exchanging knowledge and ideas.

  9. Jason December 16, 2010 at 11:52 am #


    Thanks for another excellent post! At my architecture firm, where our “claim to fame” is in generating innovative architecture for our clients, we often struggle with this debate. I would offer one suggestion to consider regarding your first category: The individual may not need power or authority if he/she is sufficiently innovative AND is persuasive enough to get the trust of those in power. In our design work, ultimately it is our clients who have the authority and the power. We need to establish their confidence and trust in order to effectively empower our ideas. I would bet that most of the greatest solo innovators achieved their biggest breakthrough ideas BEFORE they had power or authority.

    Ultimately, persuasion is a form of “power”, but I think your post suggests that only the individual with the most power can be the innovator. In my experience any inspired and persuasive individual in a group can play that role as long as they are neither concerned with getting all of the credit for the innovations nor with losing their job!

  10. Lisa Sansom December 16, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

    Whoo-hoo Jeremy! You GO!! Like, LIKE, LIKE!!!! 🙂 Looking forward to those future posts!

  11. Jeremy McCarthy December 17, 2010 at 8:58 am #

    Jason, I think you are absolutely right. It is more about the ability to influence others. I was thinking specifically of some of the leaders that I have worked with in my career and I saw some of them get some great things done by using their power and authority to push through their vision even though a lot of naysayers would have shot it down but did not have the authority to do so. But it is possible to have influence with a softer approach as well. Good point, thanks! Jeremy

  12. Jessica Durivage December 20, 2010 at 8:07 pm #

    I agree with all three theories – they are tested and true in my book. I have definietly been on the other side of the theories of collaboration – burned out, too many people in the board room with power (and me sitting in the Executive Director chair trying to please them all…). I have also been called a “control freak” when my “dictator style ruling” before I learned how to delegate squashed some very amazing ideas. You have really pointed out the best of all worlds – now, we just need to become wise to when each one applies.

  13. Eric Mieles January 16, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    This is a great post. Great points and I agree with innovation coming from a still and rested mind. I have to add that innovation also comes from pushing past, as Seth Godin refers to (The Resistance). I believe many of us have had great ideas, game changing visions and thoughts, however it’s the brave souls who push past the fear to REALIZE their vision come to life.

    I’ve also REALIZED there’s an amazing correlation for me in generating ideas and thoughts and working out and stimulating my body. There’s an energy that seems to make you feel more confident and free you up to dream just a little bigger.

  14. Marie-Josee Shaar January 17, 2011 at 10:59 am #

    I really agree with Eric! I also get my best ideas while working out – and particularly while doing cardio. I interrupted my jog last Friday to return to my computer in a hurry because my mind was buzzing with a bunch of ideas on a topic that I had been struggling with for a very long time.

  15. Jeremy McCarthy January 17, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    Great point Eric. Coming up with ideas is one thing. Actually bringing them to reality is another and probably requires a whole slew of other skillsets (resilience, persistence, self-regulation, self-efficacy, etc.)

    I don’t know if you’ve read “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by John Ratey and Eric Hagerman, but it definitely changed the way I view exercise (it seems it is just as important for the mind as it is for the body.)

    But the question I have for you and Marie-Josee is how do you know if the inspiration comes from the exercise or is it just that those times you are exercising are also one of the only times that you are free from technology and other distractions so that your mind becomes still? Could that be a big part of it?

  16. Marie-Josee Shaar January 17, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

    For me, there are different levels. I do get good ideas while in the shower, receiving a massage, or doing yoga. But my biggest insights come while doing cardio. Stillness of the mind is probably one part of it, but as John Ratey explains in his book, the increased blood flow is certainly another part. At least, that’s my experience.

  17. Eric Mieles January 19, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

    While thinking about this a little more I REALIZED my best ideas actually come while working out and listening to my IPod. On my IPod I listen to podcasts on subjects that interest me. I like to listen to interviews of all different types of people who are commenting and talking about business, marketing, branding, real estate and creativity.

    From these interviews I tend to take their ideas and/or concepts and allow my mind to have no walls or barriers to seeing how I can implement them into my own business. So now that I think about it I can’t really say it’s stillness of the mind. My mind is actually going a little crazy. Almost like energy and blood is flowing at maximum capacity and I’ve learned that if I don’t immediately write down all my ideas and thoughts there is a very small window for me to capture them forever.

    I’ve written about this and quote Mark Victor Hansen who say’s ‘Ideas are like slippery wet fish.” I believe that to be so true. So for me it’s been a concentrated focus during my workouts, combined with feeding my mind interesting audio and then allowing my mind no limits to where it can go. After that making sure I write down everything to capture that PURE energy of ideas.

  18. Jeremy McCarthy March 9, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    Hi Eric, I agree with you about writing things down right away (before the slippery fish gets away.) This is one of the biggest learnings that I have had that has allowed me to manage keeping up-to-date with a new article every week on this blog: Once I get an idea for an article I have to write that article ASAP! If I jot down the idea and write it later, it will not flow and I will struggle with writing it. But if I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for an article and I immediately get to work putting it on paper, it will flow smoothly and quickly and I will write a better article in 1-2 hours than I could have written by forcing it over 1-2 days.

  19. Amy Stark December 22, 2011 at 1:37 am #

    You all make excellent points about radical innovation. I wonder – how do you address the potential for a radical dictator, in an effort to push an innovative idea thorough, to overlook another creative individual who might contribute largely to the success of an idea?

    I’ve been reading Enchantment by Guy Kawasaki and see similar strings in the field of providing something unique and game changing to the world. I especially like the idea of a pre-mortem; imagining your idea has released and failed in order to find the weakest links and strengthen them prior to the official release. (and I’m a romantic optimist!)

  20. Jeremy McCarthy December 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    Hi Amy, I think you bring up a good point. And I loved Guy Kawasaki’s book (which I wrote about here: http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201103/enchantment.html.) The idea of doing a pre-mortem is great as it helps to prevent you from falling too in love with your idea without having thought it through. But in most (not all) organizational settings, there will be plenty of people pointing out how an idea might fail and too few that are really contributing largely to its success.

    Have you read any Seth Godin? He talks a lot about how most people prefer to stay safe. Providing words of caution are safe. Whether people heed your advice or not, you can feel confident that you contributed your ideas. But putting forth bold new ideas to drive a project in a new direction is not safe . . . you could fail.

    It is for this reason that I think big ideas often do come from the “radical dictators” as you call them, and not the collaborators. But the idea still has to be a good one. So hopefully the leader would gather enough intelligence, and input from others to strengthen the idea as you suggest. Thanks Amy!

  21. Jeremy McCarthy December 26, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    Thanks to Random.Org, Eric Mieles won a copy of the book I referenced in this article:
    Murray, D. K. (2009). Borrowing Brilliance: The Six Steps to Business Innovation by Building on the Ideas of Others. New York: Gotham Books

    Thanks for reading and commenting! I will shoot you an email to get your mailing address!


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