If you want to be innovative, you need to be a leader. No individual or organization has become an innovative one by copying the actions of their competitors or peers. That may seem obvious, but evidence shows that most people fail to realize this critical fact.
This is not only true in business. After JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books and films became a sensation, the world was deluged with children’s fantasy books as everyone was asking “what will be the next Harry Potter?” The answer of course, was: “there is no next Harry Potter. Ms. Rowling’s books became huge hits initially because of their creative freshness. The next big thing in children’s literature will doubtless be something completely different.”
It is also true of people. After Steve Jobs died and his biography was published, many men started taking to dressing like him (in black turtle-neck shirts and blue jeans) and, it has been reported, some senior managers even tried to be obnoxious like him in hopes of emulating his innovative success. They don’t seem to realize that Mr. Jobs was an innovative leader on his own terms, not because he dressed or behaved like another innovative leader.
Most people prefer to be followers
As obvious as it is that you need to be a leader in order to be innovative, most people prefer to be followers. Not only is it safer that way, but the world needs followers to keep the economy going as well as give the innovative leaders a chance to stand out. Without competing products to the iPad, for instance, Apple would not be pressured to keep their own product competitive. Without other company’s copying their products, Apple would not need to bring out innovative new products in order to maintain leadership in their field.
Moreover, being a follower is generally less risky than being an innovative leader. As a follower, you can watch the innovative leader. If they fail, it is their loss. If they succeed, you can mimic their success. Of course, you won’t earn as much income (in the case of business) or prestige (in the arts) as the leader who was willing to take the risk. But you avoid the worst consequences of the risk. Once Apple demonstrated that there was a market for touch-screen pad computers, other companies knew it would be less risky to introduce their own, similar touch-screen pad computers to that market. Once Dan Brown, author of the best-selling Da Vinci Code, demonstrated the public thirst for conspiracy based thrillers, other authors could jump in and fill that market with their own similar novels. Sure, they were unlikely to achieve his level of success. But they could feel more assured of moderate success.
Leadership is risky
Worse still, there are two big challenges with being an innovative leader. The first is risk. Here’s an example. Are you familiar with Wang Word Processors? They were innovative word processor computers that were first launched in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, all-purpose PCs, which were introduced shortly after that, made the product redundant. Although Wang also made PCs, its focus was on the word processors and this is thought to be a key factor in the company’s bankruptcy in 1992 (note: the company emerged from bankruptcy in the mid 1990s and was sold to Gentronics a few years later) 1.
Likewise, Ms. Rowlings manuscript for the original Harry Potter book was repeatedly rejected before being accepted by Bloomsbury. Had she been less persevering, the famous book and film series might never have seen the light of day. Moreover, this suggests that there are probably many more highly creative book manuscripts languishing in their authors’ desks because the authors did not persevere after the first rejections.
Finding the ideas
The second big challenge, of course, is developing the idea that turns you into an innovative leader. Mr. Jobs and Ms. Rowlings had incredible visions. His were for innovative variations on existing product types and hers were for a remarkable alternative world populated by intriguing people and non-people. Not everyone has the advantage of such visions.
Of course there are all kinds of ways you can generate and develop creative ideas for products, services, books, musical pieces or anything else. The archives of this newsletter and the creativity and innovation library on jpb.com are both full of suggestions about boosting creativity.
Ironically, one thing you can do in order to be an innovative leader is to copy someone else’s idea.
Yes, you’ve just read that sentence correctly. However, there is a catch. You must copy someone else’s idea and apply it in a different context. A very blatant example of this is Starbucks, which revolutionised the way Americans go out for a coffee. Starbucks offered Americans a good, strong Italian style coffee in a comfortable setting where they could chat with friends, get a bit of work done or read a book without worrying about being rushed out of the shop. To most Europeans, however, such cafés have been around for a couple of centuries – albeit without the laptops on wifi! That does not matter. Starbucks was an innovative concept in America which has been further developed in an American way and is even now being introduced to Europe!
Software as a service (SaaS) is another example of copying ideas. Although several companies toyed with this concept in the early days, Salesforce arguably pioneered it as a business model. However, SaaS as a concept was largely a matter of copying the typical structure of a business lease and applying it to the provision of software. It was a very old idea applied to a different kind of product.
Leadership can be built on small ideas
Of course, being an innovative leader is not only about making major, breakthough innovations. It can also be about smaller things, like applying a new business model to the selling of an existing product, taking an unique approach to marketing communications or providing a standard of customer service far above your competitors.
In the arts, being a leader is a matter of not copying the latest best sellers, most popular paintings or the current trendof pop music. Rather, do not be afraid to go out on a limb and create something that is truly your own. It need not be as elaborate as the world of Harry Potter. Indeed, your creative novel idea may all take place in a block of flats in a big city. The television series Sex and the City was a creative concept in spite of being about a very commonplace set of characters. What made it creative is that no one had done it before.
The important thing to remember is that if you want to be innovative, you need to take the lead and all the risks associated with that. But if it pays off, it will be worth it!
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
About the author
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.
1) “Wang Laboratories”, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wang_Laboratories